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Traditions of Maimonideanism


Conference Proceedings
of the Institute of Jewish Studies,
University College London

General Editors
Markham J. Geller
Ada Rapoport-Albert
François Guesnet

Traditions of Maimonideanism

Edited by

Carlos Fraenkel

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Traditions of Maimonideanism / edited by Carlos Fraenkel.

p. cm. — (IJS studies in Judaica, ISSN 1570-1581 ; v. 7)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-90-04-17333-0 (hardback : alk. paper) 1. Maimonides, Moses,
1135-1204. I. Fraenkel, Carlos, 1971-
BM546.T73 2009

ISSN 1570-1581
ISBN 978 90 04 17333 0

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Introduction ................................................................................ vii




Critical Remarks on Medical Authorities: Maimonides’

Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms ............................. 3
Samuel Kottek

Dissemination of Maimonides’ Medical Writings in the

Middle Ages ............................................................................ 17
Lola Ferre

Maimonides’ Contribution to Women’s Healthcare and His

Influence on the Hebrew Gynaecological Corpus ................ 33
Carmen Caballero-Navas

The Structure of Mishneh Torah .............................................. 51

Joseph Tabory

Maimonides on the Prayers ........................................................ 73

Stefan C. Reif




Maimonides—Father and Son: Continuity and Change .......... 103

Paul B. Fenton
vi contents

Abraham Maimuni’s Prayer Reforms: Continuation or

Revision of His Father’s Teachings? ...................................... 139
Mordechai A. Friedman

Shar al-Dalāla: A Commentary to Maimonides’ Guide

from Fourteenth-Century Yemen ........................................... 155
Y. Tzvi Langermann

From Maimonides to Samuel ibn Tibbon: Interpreting

Judaism as a Philosophical Religion ....................................... 177
Carlos Fraenkel

Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim: A Fourteenth-Century Maimonidean

Encyclopedia ........................................................................... 213
Esti Eisenmann

Late Medieval Jewish Writers on Maimonides .......................... 223

Angel Sáenz-Badillos

Maimonides’ Disputed Legacy ................................................... 245

Menachem Kellner

The Image of Maimonides in Habad Hasidism ....................... 277

Naftali Loewenthal

Anthropomorphisms in Early Rabbinic Literature:

Maimonides and Modern Scholarship .................................. 313
Yair Lorberbaum

Index of Names .......................................................................... 355


More than 10 years ago, Colette Sirat suggested in a provocative paper

that it might be better to stop teaching and writing on Maimonides.
What she deplored was, above all, the disproportionate attention paid
to Maimonides in comparison to all other Jewish philosophers, but also
the lack of interest in putting the study of Maimonides on a firm philo-
logical foundation. No critical edition of Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew
translation of the Guide of the Perplexed had been prepared, although it is
the textus receptus of Maimonides’ chief philosophical-theological work,
and the edition of the Arabic original still awaited substantive revision
in light of the extensive new manuscript evidence that had become
available since its publication in the nineteenth century.1
While neither the Arabic nor the Hebrew text of the Guide have
come out in a new edition, the octocentenary of Maimonides’ death
in 2004 gave rise to a wide range of symposia, journals, and edited
volumes showing that Colette Sirat’s advice has not been heeded.
Before I briefly introduce the present Maimonides volume, it may thus
be worth to ponder for a moment, whether we have good reasons to
continue teaching and writing on Maimonides.
Dr. Thomas Meyer recently brought a Waschzettel to my attention
concerning Leo Strauss’s Philosophie und Gesetz (1935). A Waschzettel is a
paper slip that briefly describes a book’s content and purpose and is
added to other books for advertisement. The author, Meyer discovered,
was Moritz Spitzer, Strauss’s editor at Schocken Verlag where Philosophie und
Gesetz was published. How did Spitzer try to pique the curiosity of poten-
tial readers? Let me quote what I think is the most interesting passage:
This work [i.e. Philosophie und Gesetz] is meant less as a historical contribu-
tion than as one of philosophical and contemporary importance [ philoso-
phisch-aktuell ]: it intends to draw attention to Maimonides as a guide out of
the current perplexity. [. . .] Returning to the older conception of Judaism
as Maimonides developed it in its classical form is recognized as a way out
of the current confusion [Verlegenheit].2

Sirat (1997).
See Meyer (forthcoming).
viii introduction

There is, of course, much disagreement on the value of Strauss’s

scholarship on Maimonides. I for one agree with the view that Strauss’s
interpretation was as stimulating as it was paralyzing.3 But independently
of one’s stance on Strauss, the Waschzettel vividly expresses the sense
that Maimonides’ work remains more than a piece in the museum of
the intellectual past—that one can learn from it something “of philo-
sophical and contemporary importance” as Spitzer describes Strauss’s
motivation for writing Philosophie und Gesetz. Strauss is certainly not the
only contemporary Maimonidean. Scholars as diverse as Leon Roth,
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and David Hartmann have been described as
such. Although their interpretations of Maimonides vary as much as
their own philosophical projects, all of them bear witness to the fact that
Maimonides belongs to the small group of philosophers from the past
who are capable to speak to intellectual concerns of the present.4
A second reason for continuing teaching and writing on Maimonides
that in some ways is related to the first, bears more directly on the
present volume: Jewish philosophy after Maimonides unfolds to a large
extent within a Maimonidean framework: Whether praising, criticizing
or condemning him—the interpretations, appropriations, and trans-
formations of Maimonides are a substantial part of Jewish philosophy
from the thirteenth century onwards. Because of this foundational
role, studying Maimonides remains indispensable for understanding
later developments. This at least has been my experience: portraying
Samuel ibn Tibbon as a critic of Maimonides, for example, required
making a number of substantive interpretative commitments concerning
Maimonides’ philosophical-religious project. The same holds for my
interpretation of Spinoza and Solomon Maimon. In each case I argued
against scholars who understood Ibn Tibbon, Spinoza, or Solomon
Maimon differently, because they understood Maimonides differently.5
* * *
The main goal of the present volume is to shed light on a number of
traditions of Maimonideanism that have hitherto been little explored.
The essays in the first part examine aspects of Maimonides’ work
that certainly deserve greater scholarly attention. The method and

For two critical appraisals of Strauss’s impact on the study of medieval Islamic and
Jewish philosophy, see Harvey (2001) and Gutas (2002).
See the account of contemporary Maimonidean projects in Harvey (1980).
See Fraenkel (2006), (2007a), and (2007b).
introduction ix

historical influence of Maimonides’ medical treatises in general, and

of his work on gynaecology in particular, are discussed by Samuel
Kottek, Lola Ferre, and Carmen Caballero-Navas. The contributions
of Joseph Tabory and Stefan Reif focus on Maimonides’ halakhic and
liturgical work.
The volume’s second part looks at how Maimonides was read,
misread, and creatively reinvented in a wide range of contexts in the
East and in the West—from medieval Cairo to Crown Heights in
Brooklyn. Paul Fenton, Mordechai Friedman, and Tzvi Langermann
explore different aspects of Maimonides’ legacy in the Arabic-speaking
Jewish communities of the Islamic world, i.e., in the geographic and
intellectual context in which this legacy took shape. My own paper
and the contributions of Esti Eisenmann and Angel Sáenz-Badillos
examine the reception of Maimonides’ work in the Jewish communi-
ties of Christian Europe, focusing on various contexts in Southern
France and Catalonia from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.
Menachem Kellner describes the strategy of “creative misreading”
used by the rabbinic establishment to deal with a distinctive challenge:
Maimonides’ views, the rabbis felt, were too important to be ignored,
yet at the same time too unconventional to be accepted tel quel. Naftali
Loewenthal’s intriguing paper elucidates what at first might seem like a
case of strange bedfellows: the portrait of Maimonides as embodying
the ideals of Habad Hasidism! Finally, Yair Lorberbaum finds reason
to doubt the scientific rigor of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and its
Israeli heir, the Mada‘e ha-Yahadut. Scholars, he argues, appropriated the
tools used by Maimonides to purge the Bible and rabbinical texts from
anthropomorphisms to prove a highly counterintuitive claim: that the
rabbis did not represent God in anthropomorphic terms.
* * *
The papers of the present volume are revised versions of presentations
given at the conference “Maimonides—the Man and the Image” at the
Institute of Jewish Studies in London in 2004. I am grateful to Mark
Geller, the general editor of Brill’s IJS Studies in Judaica for inviting me
to serve as the volume’s editor. When I accepted the editorship, the
papers had already been read by Stefan Reif who also approved their
academic content. I wish to thank Prof. Reif for all his efforts. The
remaining task for me was to see to the volume’s completion and to
finally get it into print. In this I was greatly assisted by Jim Dingley,
who took upon himself the arduous task of copy-editing the chapters.
x introduction

Mr. Dingley and I have not imposed a uniform system of translitera-

tion of Arabic and Hebrew words. Since transliterations can be done
in different ways and some scholars prefer to quote the sources without
transliteration we decided to leave this to the discretion of the authors.
Finally, I would like to thank Michael Mozina and Jennifer Pavelko,
the editors at Brill responsible for this volume, for their diligent help
in bringing this project to a close.

Montreal, November 2008

Carlos Fraenkel


Fraenkel, Carlos, “Maimonides’ God and Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura,” Journal of the His-
tory of Philosophy 44, No. 2 (2006), 169–215.
——, “Beyond the Faithful Disciple: Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Criticism of Maimonides,”
in Maimonides after 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and His Influence, ed. J. Harris, Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007a, 33–63.
——, “Maimonides, Spinoza, Solomon Maimon and the Completion of the Coper-
nican Revolution in Philosophy,” in Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Knowledge and
Eighteenth-Century Enlightened Jewish Discourse, eds. R. Fontaine, A. Schatz and I. Zwiep,
Royal Netherlands Academy of Art and Sciences, Amsterdam, 2007b, 193–220.
Gutas, Dimitri, “The Study of Arabic Philosophy in the Twentieth Century,” British
Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 29 (2002), 5–25.
Harvey, Zeev, “The Return of Maimonideanism,” Jewish Social Studies 42 (1980), 249–68.
——, “How Leo Strauss Paralyzed the Scholarship on the Guide of the Perplexed in the
20th Century” [ Hebrew], Iyyun 50 (2001), 387–396.
Meyer, Thomas, Jewish Philosophy and Theology between 1933 and 1938 in Germany. Six
Studies, Leiden: Brill (forthcoming).
Sirat, Colette, “Should We Stop Teaching Maimonides?” in Paradigms of Jewish Philosophy,
ed. Raphael Jospe, London, 1997, 136–144.



Samuel Kottek

Maimonides is certainly less well-known as a physician than as a phi-

losopher or as a theologian. In Max Meyerhof ’s words, “His medical
writings are not of the same overwhelming importance as his theological
and philosophical output.”1
Maimonides may be regarded as a respectable, even a remarkable
representative of medieval Galenic medicine in its Arabic garb. He
was not, however, just a blind follower of established medicine; he
had not merely memorized, or epitomized Galenic medical literature
as could be elicited in Arabic. Maimonides applied, as he did in his
philosophical and even in his theological works, his sharp critical mind
to the teachings of classical authors. In his theological works he did not
in fact criticise, but he chose the opinions that seemed to him relevant
and acceptable.
In his medical works as well, Maimonides made his own choice and
organised the memorised data in his own way, while having in view
educational purposes aimed either at other physicians, or at laymen
who had consulted him. Some of his writings, such as his Excerpts from
Galen, were most probably devised for his own use as a vademecum.
His Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms was aimed rather at his pupils.
In his introductory chapter Maimonides asserts that Hippocrates’
Aphorisms are “highly useful, more than any other of his works.”
And he adds: “I therefore decided [lit. ‘saw’] to comment on them,
for these aphorisms should be known by heart by every physician.”
Some of these sayings, Maimonides states, are even known by heart
by laypeople, they were thus part of general knowledge in a cultured
society, at least in his lifetime.2

Max Meyerhof, “Medieval Jewish Physicians in the Near-East, from Arabic Sources”,
Isis 77 (1938), pp. 432–460, see p. 450.
Sussman Muntner, Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, Jerusalem, 1961, p. 5,
par. 9. We have used the Hebrew translation of Muntner throughout this study.
4 samuel kottek

Maimonides’ Comment on Galen’s Commentary

In his introduction, Maimonides explains why a commentary on Hip-

pocrates’ aphorisms is a necessity. Some of them are obscure (Heb.
mesupaqim), and therefore they need clarification.3 Others are superfluous
[lit. ‘repeated’]. Some of them are irrelevant [ lit. ‘of no use’, Heb. lo
yo il ] to the art of medicine, or incongruous.4 Galen, however, would
not accept such considerations, and commented on these sayings as
he saw fit.
In other words, Galen’s commentary is indicted as being apologetic,
or at least as interpreting Hippocrates’ statements in a way acceptable
in Galen’s times. It could be argued that Galen’s aim was to ensure
the absolute value of Hippocrates as supreme authority in medicine,
and he therefore had to find an acceptable interpretation of the prob-
lematic aphorisms.
Maimonides, on the contrary, has in view the truth, i.e., what Hippocrates
truly wanted to say. For Maimonides even the highest authorities, the
paragons of established medicine, are open to criticism, and they must
be studied within their time and context. We must acknowledge here
the sound (and ambitious) approach of Maimonides to the role of a
commentator. We read:
What I call ‘commentary’ is to make clear what was contained virtually
[Heb. be-koa ] in the statement and to establish it practically [Heb. be-
fo al ]. When you then read again the statement together with the com-
ment, you should feel that this is indeed what it meant to say, according
to your understanding. This is what I call a true commentary [Heb.
peirush be-emet].5
Maimonides however readily acknowledges the accurateness of Galen’s
commentary in most cases, where he merely writes: “This has (already)
been made clear.” He does not say “by Galen” but it was understood
by his readers. In other cases, Maimonides adds his own comments,
always in a clear and concise way. We shall, in this essay, consider only
some of the aphorisms for which he offers critical comments, aimed at
Hippocrates and/or at Galen’s comments.6

Ibid., par. 10. Mesupaqim actually means ‘dubious’ or ‘doubtful’.


Lit. ‘illogical’, Heb. beli iyyun.

See Muntner (cit. note 2), p. 3.
On the topic ‘Critical comments on Galen in medieval Islam,’ see J. Christoph
Bürgel, “Averroes contra Galenum”, Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, I,
critical remarks on medical authorities 5

The First Aphorism

This is indeed an aphorism known to any cultured layperson: “Life is

short, the art is long.” Even the Sages of the Talmud used and adapted
the adage.7 We wish only to consider here Maimonides’ comment on
the end of the aphorism:
The physician must be prepared not only to do what is his actual duty,
but also to secure the cooperation of the patient, of the attendants, and
of externals.
In this case, Maimonides does not criticise; rather he adds ethical duties
that were probably not included in Hippocrates’ intentions. The problem
is, what did Hippocrates mean by ‘externals’? Were these only external
persons, i.e., persons outside the patient’s family, or the care-takers?
It appears that for Maimonides they rather include all kinds of
external factors which may contribute to the cure and the well-being
of the patient. We read:
[The physician] should remove all external impediments that under-
mine the health of the sick person. [. . .] If he/she is poor, and lives in
a place where his/her illness gets worse, but has nowhere else to go,
he [the physician] should secure him/her a safer place. And he should
furnish [adequate] food and medication, if the patient is in need. Such
things, and others of the same kind, are ‘externals’ which pertain to the
physician’s responsibility . . .8
Among the factors that may have a negative impact on the healing
process, Maimonides mentions the place of dwelling (housing, climate),
the diet, the medication, “and other things.” Galen mentioned housing
conditions and turmoil, he did not however say that the physician had
to care for all the needs of the patient.

Philosophisch-historische Klasse 9 (1967), pp. 276–290. Bürgel considers Maimonides as

being the last representative of this trend, after Rhazes, Al-Farabi and Averroes. See
also Ahmed M. Mokhtar, Rhazes contra Galenum: Die Galenkritik in den ersten 20 Büchern
des Continens von Ibn ar-Razi, MD Thesis, Bonn University, Bonn, 1969; see p. 15
and passim.
See Mishnah, Abot II, 15. See also F. Rosenthal, “Arabic Commentaries of the First
Hippocratic Aphorism”, Bull. Hist. Med. 40 (1966), pp. 226–245; A. Bar-Sela and H.E.
Hoff, “Maimonides’ Interpretation of the First Aphorism of Hippocrates”, Bull. Hist.
Med. 37 (1963), pp. 347–354.
‘Impediments’ stands for Heb. me‘iqim (Bar-Sela & Hoff trans.), lit. ‘obstructive’,
or ‘burdensome (factors)’. “He/she” is obviously our addendum.
6 samuel kottek

For Maimonides, such factors are indeed ‘external’ to medical treat-

ment, they are however a prerequisite for its success. In other words,
the aim of the physician is not just to forward accurate treatment, he
has in view the healing of his patient. To associate caring and curing was
not really a ‘must’ in Hippocratic medicine.9 The concept of caritas is
rather a product of Judaeo-Christian culture.

Critical Remarks on Hippocrates

Maimonides was only one among the many authors who voiced criti-
cal comments on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms. The learned historian of
medicine Charles Daremberg, in his introduction to the Aphorisms,
mentions a long list of commentators, beginning with Diocles of Carys-
tos.10 Galen acknowledged that there were a number of inadequacies
and of apocryphal sentences, particularly in the last (seventh) section.
Incidentally, Daremberg has 89 entries in section VII, whereas Mai-
monides has only 82 entries.11
It should be made clear that the commentary of Maimonides is, as a
matter of fact, a super-commentary of Galen’s work, as were most of
other post-Galenic commentaries, including the one written by Averroes
(Ibn Rushd), Maimonides’ contemporary.12

I. Aphorism II, 20
Paradigmatic of Maimonides’ critical remarks are those on Aphorism II,
20. We shall quote the text of Hippocrates in Jones’ English translation,
and then the commentary of Maimonides, as rendered in Hebrew by
Moses Ibn Tibbon.13 Hippocrates wrote:

The late Hippocratic treatise The Art discusses the limits of medical practice, see
Hippocrates, Works (W.H.S. Jones ed. & trans.), vol. II, Loeb Classical Library, 1923,
p. 203.
See Hippocrate: Les Aphorismes, Préface et notes du Docteur Daremberg, Les Presses
de l’Opéra, n.d., pp. 34–48.
Aphorisms 72 to 82 were missing in the Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts used
by Muntner; he added them in a note.
See O. Temkin, Galenism: Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy, Ithaca & London,
Cornell Univ. Press, 1973, pp. 121ff.
See Hippocrates, Works (W.H.S. Jones ed. & trans.), vol. IV, Loeb Classical Library,
1931, pp. 99–221. The translation of Maimonides’ commentary from the Hebrew (in
Muntner’s edition) is mine.
critical remarks on medical authorities 7

Those whose bowels are loose in youth get constipated as they grow old.
Those whose bowels are constipated in youth have them loose as they
grow old.
Incidentally, the translation of Ibn Tibbon is here closer to the Greek
original than that of Jones: He has ‘watery’ instead of loose (Gr. hugraí ),
and ‘dry’ for constipated (Gr. xēraínontai ).
Maimonides comments as follows:
While seeking the truth, I recognised that this is inconsequent (Heb. bilti
nimshakh), and is therefore an unfounded statement, without any doubt.
And the truth is that Hippocrates saw one or two individuals to whom
this happened, from which he inferred a general statement, as he often
did in his work Epidemics. [. . .] But in case you do not want to say this,
and wish rather to cover this false assertion with some fake-truth, adding
special conditions or understandings, [ just] refer to what Galen said on
this paragraph.14
This is not really a commentary, it is rather an indictment of Hip-
pocrates for passing readily from the particular to the general. As
Maimonides states in his Book on Asthma (chapter 13), experience (Heb.
nisayon) should be based on numerous cases observed, registered, and
verified along several generations.15 Aphorismatic sentences are sup-
posed to be based on vast and sound experience, therefore Maimonides’
criticisms are particularly meaningful.

II. Aphorisms III, 12–16

A second example of such criticism is a series of five aphorisms in
section III, aphorisms 12 to 16. They may be found nearly verbatim
in Hippocrates’ treatise Airs, Waters and Places, chapter X.16 They deal
with the influence of climate, winds, rain, etc. Maimonides comments
on all five aphorisms after aphorism 16:
All these remarks of Hippocrates [. . .] can in no way be considered
as general rules, therefore there can be no absolute causality.17 Galen
however wished to explain all this and include within basic knowledge

See C.G. Kühn, Galeni Opera Omnia, Leipzig, C. Cnobloch, 1821–1833 (rpt. Hil-
desheim, 1965), vol. XVIIb, pp. 492–498. Galen’s comment thus covers six pages.
See Gerrit Bos, Maimonides: On Asthma, Provo, UT, Brigham Young Univ. Press,
2002, pp. 96–98.
Hippocrates, Works (cit. note 9), vol. I, pp. 100–102.
In other words, it does not allow reliable etiology.
8 samuel kottek

of the medical art the nature of seasons and of individuals, the etiology
of diseases, and that the humours are the source of putrefaction, the
heat working on them being an easy explanation for all things he (Hip-
pocrates) mentioned.
Here again, Maimonides seems to condemn excessive generalisation.
He does not reject the influence of climate and meteorology on health,
neither does he deny the role of the individual constitution. Galen
himself, in his commentary on Aphorism 16, remarks that several ear-
lier commentators, beginning with Diocles, interpreted Hippocrates’
speculations each one in his own way. His (Galen’s) opinion is that the
peculiarities of the seasons should always be taken into consideration.
Maimonides is ready to agree, while considering that the influences of
season, climate, humours, and constitution are too intricate and com-
plicated to be epitomised in a few sentences. His criticism therefore is
here on hyper-simplification.

III. Aphorism V, 65
More difficult to follow and explain is Aphorism V, 65. We read:
When swellings appear on wounds, there are seldom18 convulsions or
delirium. But when the swellings suddenly disappear, wounds behind
are followed by convulsions and tetanus, wounds in front by delirium,
severe pains in the side, or suppuration (Gr. empúēsis), or dysentery, if the
swellings are inclined to be red.
Maimonides comments as follows:
. . . In truth, some of his (Hippocrates’) sentences are (applicable) to a
small number (of cases). Maybe he observed this once and applied to
these (symptoms) an etiology that was inexact. [. . .] Galen explains: As
for the wounds ‘behind’ the body, this is where there are (many) nerves,
whereas the wounds ‘in front’ are (located) where there are many arter-
ies.19 When the humour that causes the abcess rises along the nerves
to the brain, there will be convulsions, but if it rises along the arteries

In Maimonides’ version (in its Hebrew translation), it says “It is impossible that”
instead of ‘seldom.’ Jones (cit. note 13) remarks that “there are many difficulties of
meaning in this aphorism” (vol. IV, p. 177, note 4). Littré tries to solve the difficulties,
without convincing evidence. See Oeuvres complètes d’Hippocrate, Paris, Baillière, 1839,
vol. IV, pp. 559–560, note 16.
“Many arteries”: Heb. ha-‘orqim ha-dofeqim (the pulsing vessels). Galen has venosae
et arteriosae, see Kühn (cit. note 14), vol. XVII b, p. 878.
critical remarks on medical authorities 9

to the brain, there will be delirium.20 If the humour goes to the chest,
there will be pains in the side, and often in such cases it develops into
purulent matter.
In this case, Maimonides accepts Galen’s interpretation and even quotes,
or rather epitomises them, not withstanding his repeated accusation of

IV. Aphorism VI, 40

Let us now consider Aphorism VI, 40:
When pain in the region of the hypochondrium occurs without inflam-
mation, the pain is removed if fever supervenes.21
Maimonides explains that Hippocrates had in mind that when the pains
are caused by accumulation of winds (gases) or by occlusion, they will
be soothed if fever intervenes. And he adds:
This is like saying ‘sometimes they [the pains] are soothed.’ And I have
previously remarked, regarding this man’s (Hippocrates’) method, that
most of his sentences lack [relevant] context, or are presented in a strange
way [ Heb. al derekh zarut–perhaps ‘as rare occurrences’]; some of them
are asserted without deliberation [ Heb. belo iyyun—‘without logical rea-
soning’], for they happened by accident. But he thought that the story
having happened in such a sequence, one [symptom] was the cause of
the other. This is how one who is open-minded will speak. Someone
who is not [who is stubborn, or biased, Heb. iqesh] will say whatever he
wishes to say.
The problem of ‘context’ and the ‘lack of reasoning’22 are directly
related to the methodology of aphorismatic literature, characterised
by brevity of expression. On the other hand, it allows multifaceted
commentaries, and a dynamic, though often problematic, way of

Heb. shtut, which is closer to the Greek maínontai than ‘delirium.’ Galen uses the
term mania.
‘Inflammation’ renders the Greek phlegmonēs. The Aramaic term mursa (abcess)
seems more accurate than the term ‘inflammation’ chosen by Jones.
Lack of context (Heb. aser ha-tenaim), lit. ‘lack of conditions’, and lack of reason-
ing (Heb. belo iyyun), are unacceptable for the philosopher Maimonides.
10 samuel kottek

V. Aphorism V, 53
Maimonides’ comment on Aphorism V, 53 adds an important detail.
The aphorism asserts that if a woman is threatened with miscarriage,
her breasts become thin. However, if they become firm again, there will
be pain in the breasts, or in the hips, or the knees, or the eyes, and she
will not abort. Maimonides once again remarks that this might indeed
happen, but not as a rule. He then adds that such generalisations hap-
pen “for the sage Hippocrates was the initiator of the medical art.”
We stressed this on purpose. Hippocrates’ personal experience could
hardly enable him to attain excellence in aphorismatic literature. We
have seen above how Maimonides defined experience in his Book on
Asthma.23 This statement thus incriminates, as it seems, aphorismatic
literature even more than Hippocrates.

VI. Aphorism V, 48
Hippocrates wrote: “The male embryo is usually on the right, the
female on the left.”
Maimonides translates: “Whenever there is a male embryo, it is
proper (Heb. ra ui ) that it (would) grow on the right (side) and if female
on the left.” Then comes Maimonides’ comment:
This has been explained, for the right side is warmer. And Galen men-
tioned that the female seed that comes from the right side, from her
ovary,24 has more substance and warmness. And what comes from the
left side is tenuous, watery and colder than (what comes) from the other.
I have no idea whether this came to his knowledge by prophecy or by
syllogism (Heb. heqesh), indeed a striking syllogism.
In this case, Maimonides becomes even sarcastic, a rare occurrence
indeed. Galen speaks of the right or left ovary, and of the two sides
of the matrix,25 whereas Hippocrates had only in mind the two sides

See note 15.
Lit. ‘from one of her eggs’ (Heb. beitsim)-a term used for the testicles, but also for
the ovaries. Galen (De Semine II, 5) remarks that usually male embryos are found “in
the right uterus, [. . .] and rarely in the left uterus.” Cf. Kühn (cit. note 14), vol. IV,
p. 633.
In ancient anatomy the uterus was described as having two sinuses often called
‘horns.’ Soranus (2nd cent. AD) however, while quoting Hippocrates about males being
grown in the right part of the uterus etc., added: “we proved this (to be) untrue.” See
O. Temkin, Soranus’ Gynecology, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1956; see Book I, ch.
XIII, pp. 44–45.
critical remarks on medical authorities 11

of the matrix, where the embryo develops. It is remarkable that Mai-

monides expresses doubts on a generally accepted concept of Galenic
medicine. Soranus’ work had been long lost.

Critical Remarks on Galen

Let us first take the example of Aphorism II, 36. Jones translates as
follows: “Those with healthy bodies quickly lose strength when they
take purges, as do those who use a bad diet.”
Maimonides’ translation is different. We read:
One whose body is healthy and has been evacuated by purges or by
emetics will soon be worn out.26 The same (will happen) for one who
uses a bad diet.
Maimonides comments on the second part of the aphorism. Galen,
he contends, writes that the bad diet will leave bad residue, which will
be stirred by the medicine (the purge) and manifest itself by causing
To me it seems [rather] that constant bad diet will seriously damage his
blood, and its quality will become defective. Therefore the drawing force
[exerted] by the evacuating drugs will put all the blood that is in him
in motion, with the aim of eliminating all its dross. [. . .] This powerful
evacuation will forcefully cause utter weakness [. . .]
Maimonides’ commentary is here based on a more detailed physio-
pathological discussion than that of Galen, which deserves being

Important for its relevance to medical theory is Aphorism II, 52.
Jones’ translation reads as follows:

“Worn out” (Heb. ha- iluf ), lit. ‘fainting’, ‘losing all strength’. “Evacuation by
emetics” is added by Maimonides; it appears neither in Hippocrates’ text, nor in
Galen’s commentary.
12 samuel kottek

When acting in all things according to rule (Gr. katà lógon), do not, when
results are not according to rule, change to another course of treatment,
if the original opinion (Gr. dóxa) remains.27
Maimonides’ paraphrase reads;
In case you have done all that is proper, and in the correct way, but the
awaited consequence does not come forth, do not change for another
management, as long as what you have perceived at your initial delibera-
tion persists.
To this he adds the following comment:
Said Moses: This passage contains one of the most important principles
of medicine, and Galen did not comment on it properly.28
Maimonides instead describes a practical case. If you diagnose symp-
toms showing that the patient has to be warmed up and accordingly
prescribe warming drugs, but there is no cure in sight, do not switch
over to cooling drugs. On the contrary, go on with warming drugs;
however, choose another than before, as it happens that the body
becomes accustomed to a certain medicine and its efficiency decreases.
Moreover, alternating drugs of similar action is excellent in principle
as regards the constitution (Heb. mezeg) of the individual,29 of each
organ, and [the nature of ] the disease. This is a major tenet among
the secrets of medicine.
Maimonides could have added here another factor that might explain
the failure of the treatment. In his Book on Asthma he remarks that it
happens that the patient does not apply the prescribed treatment, either
because he consulted other physicians, or because he took some popu-
lar nostrum instead, obviously without informing his physician.30 His
commentary on this aphorism was however already one of the most
extensive, even without adding such ‘external’ considerations.

“According to rule” means according to accepted norms. “The original opinion”
means the first judgement that indicated the given treatment.
As a matter of fact, Galen’s commentary is rather brief, only nine lines in Kühn’s
edition. He declares that sometimes the treatment may take more time than expected
to work. He illustrates with only one example, and without stressing the importance
of Hippocrates’ statement.
This means that certain drugs are more efficient than others of similar action for a
given constitution, a given organ, or a certain form (or severity) of the given disease.
See Bos, Book on Asthma (cit. note 15), chap. 13, pp. 108–109. See also what we
said above on the first aphorism, and Maimonides’ comment on the ‘externals’. More
critical remarks on Galen may be found in Maimonides’ comments on Aphorisms III,
30; IV, 44 and 48; VI, 57; VII, 48.
critical remarks on medical authorities 13

Among the aphorisms that were considered spurious by Maimonides,

let us mention VI, 31; VII, 46, 54, 63. Galen had previously remarked
that a number of aphorisms of the seventh book are repetitions of
previous sentences, arguing that they might have been added by later
authors or copyists.


Maimonides’ Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms was primarily a super-

commentary on Galen’s commentary, which was available to him in
its Arabic garb.
In his own Medical Aphorisms31 (Heb. Pirqei Moshe), Maimonides,
leaning heavily on Al-Farabi, sharply criticises Galen. Although repeat-
edly acknowledging his excellence in medicine, he contends that Galen
suffered from a disease which is common among scientists, i.e., to con-
sider himself more accomplished than he actually was. Maimonides’
statement was however aimed at Galen’s writings on philosophy, on
logic, and on theology, rather than on his medical works.
And this man, Galen, distorted, lacked accuracy, and adulterated many
of the statements he enunciated, except for the medical art.32
Regarding medicine, Maimonides is reluctant to criticise Galen openly.
Although there are some problems and some inadequacies (he writes
‘doubts’—Heb. sefeiqot), they may have originated in faulty translations
from the Greek into Arabic. It is however possible that Galen was
mistaken, “which may happen to anyone, unless being a prophet.” Or
else, Maimonides avows, “I might have mistakenly understood what he
intended to say.” Among the many examples of such inconsistencies
listed by Maimonides, I found only two references to Galen’s com-
mentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, one from the seventh and one
from the fourth book. Neither of these two remarks appears verbatim
in Maimonides’ commentary.33

See The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides, F. Rosner & S. Muntner eds., New
York, Yeshiva Univ. Press, 1971, vol. II, pp. 171–222.
See ibid., p. 387 [XXV, 66]–my translation from Hebrew.
There is however a certain similarity between what Maimonides wrote toward the
end of Pirkei Moshe (cit. note 31), vol. II, pp. 190–191 [XXV, 39] and his commentary
on Aphorism IV, 23.
14 samuel kottek

Maimonides states at the very beginning of the twenty-fifth book of

his Pirqei Moshe that he would not go, in his criticism of Galen, in the
footsteps of Rhazes, neither does he wish to use the same approach as
that of Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) or Ibn Ridwan.
Without going into more detail regarding Pirqei Moshe, and retreat-
ing to Maimonides’ Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, I would like to
conclude with the following remarks:
Maimonides used an Arabic version of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms and
of Galen’s Commentary. Moreover, I have used the Hebrew translation,
by Moses ibn Tibbon, of Maimonides’ Commentary. I am fully conscious
of the fact that a study based on the Arabic Vorlage would have been
more reliable. It is my hope that this will be done in the future.
Be this as it may, Maimonides’ critical outlook is that of a trained
philosopher. Despite his obvious respect for the highest authorities of
the past in medicine, he openly states that he has only one thing in
mind: What was the true meaning of Hippocrates’ sentences, and how
should they truly be commented?
This search for the truth (Heb. emet) was for Maimonides a leading
principle, which overcame even his respect for higher authorities. In his
Book on Asthma he urged his readers to put their faith only in a perfect
physician, in other words, an accomplished practitioner. Truth and
perfection are no doubt very high goals, they are however a fascinat-
ing challenge.
Maimonides’ Commentary may fittingly be qualified as an enlightened
discourse on ancient medicine. In Harry Friedenwald’s words:
[Maimonides had] this rare universal mind which could embrace the
whole of the science and philosophy of his period. In his intellect, there
was complete harmony of philosophy and religion, of science and ethics
and medicine. This is the proof of his powerful intellect.34

Cf. Harry Friedenwald, Jews and Medicine : Essays, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press,
1944, vol. I, p. 216.
critical remarks on medical authorities 15


Bar-Sela, A. and H.E. Hoff, “Maimonides’ Interpretation of the First Aphorism of

Hippocrates”, Bull. Hist. Med. 37 (1963): 347–354.
Bürgel, J. Christoph, “Averroes contra Galenum”, Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften
in Göttingen, I, Philosophisch-historische Klasse 9 (1967): 276–290.
Friedenwald, Harry, Jews and Medicine: Essays, 2 vols, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press,
Galen, Opera omnia, ed. C. Kühn, 20 vols, Leipzig: C. Cnoblauch, 1821–33.
Hippocrates, Les Aphorismes, Préface et notes du Docteur Daremberg, Les Presses de
l’Opéra, n.d.
——, Oeuvres complètes d’Hippocrate, ed. and trans. E. Littré, 10 vols, Paris: Baillière,
——, Works, vols I–IV, ed. & trans. W.H.S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library (nos. 147–150),
Maimonides, On Asthma. A Parallel Arabic-English Text Edited, Translated and Anno-
tated by Gerrit Bos, Provo UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002.
——, The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides, ed. and trans. F. Rosner & S. Muntner,
2 vols, New York: Yeshiva Univ. Press, 1971.
Meyerhof, Max, “Medieval Jewish Physicians in the Near-East, from Arabic Sources”,
Isis 77 (1938): 432–460.
Mokhtar, Ahmed M., Rhazes contra Galenum: Die Galenkritik in den ersten 20 Büchern des
Continens von Ibn ar-Razi, MD Thesis, Bonn University: Bonn 1969.
Muntner, Sussman, Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, Jerusalem, 1961.
Rosenthal, F., “Arabic Commentaries of the First Hippocratic Aphorism”, Bull. Hist.
Med. 40 (1966): 226–245.
Soranus, Gynecology, trans. O. Temkin, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956.
Temkin, O., Galenism: Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy, Ithaca & London, Cornell
Univ. Press, 1973.

Lola Ferre

Jewish studies researchers usually consider Maimonides as one of the

most, if not the most, important Jewish authors of medical texts in the
medieval world. But I have found many more quotations from another
Jewish author, Isaac Israeli, in the medical literature of the time than I
have from Maimonides. I wondered then whether we had exaggerated
his importance as a medical author, whether his strong personality as
a theologian or philosopher may have caused us to think that he must
have stood out in every topic he wrote about. Was Maimonides actu-
ally as respected a physician in the Middle Ages as we tend to think
In order to answer these questions, I am going to approach the mat-
ter by following the dissemination of his medical books. I am going to
focus on manuscripts preserved in the different languages in which his
works were preserved: Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.

Dissemination through the Arabic Language

Since I am quite unfamiliar with Arabic studies, I decided to take the

first step cautiously by looking at the classics,1 searching for references
to Arabic manuscripts of Maimonides’ medical books. However, it
seemed to me that these classical studies of medieval Arabic texts
provide quite an incomplete list. Steinschneider’s book contains only
references to European libraries and almost the same could be said
about Brocklemann’s book. The absence of any mention of Oriental
libraries was, from my point of view, a serious problem, since I was
looking for Arabic sources. I presumed that these sources were copied

By this I mean Steinschneider (1902), p. 221, and Brockelmann, Supplement II
(1938), p. 351, and Supplement III (1942), pp. 644–646, books on Arabic literature
of Jewish authors and on Arabic literature respectively.
18 lola ferre

and preserved in Arab countries rather than in European ones. To

solve this problem I turned to more recent works and to the modern
edition of these Arabic texts.2
I found interesting data in Haskell Isaacs’ book on medical and
paramedical manuscripts of the Cairo Geniza. I was struck, first, by the
large number of Hebrew manuscripts of the Commentary on Hippocrates’
Aphorisms and second, by the existence of a Judeo-Arabic manuscript
of On sexual intercourse, since the copies whose existence is known are
either in a very bad condition or difficult to access. These manuscripts
are not very useful for editing purposes: they consist of just a few leaves,
but their existence is very enlightening as they provide evidence of the
circulation of Arabic or Judeo-Arabic manuscripts of certain specific
books among Jewish communities in Muslim countries. Moreover, the
existence of these books is less significant than the absence of others
which are supposed to have been extremely popular: for example, there
were no copies of his Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms or Regimen of
Although my main purpose was to construct a whole picture of the
manuscript transmission in Arabic of all Maimonides’ medical writ-
ings, I finally decided to use just those that had been edited in modern
times and compare the number of manuscripts in them with those that
Steinschneider gave in his book.3
This is the result:

1. On Asthma 2 (Steinschneider) 3 (Bos)

2. Aphorisms 10 (Steinschneider) 10 (Bos)
3. On Hemorrhoids 2 (Steinschneider) 10 (Bos)
4. On the Names of Drugs – (unknown to 1 (Meyerhof )
5. On the Causes of 2 (Steinschneider) 4 (Leibowitz and
Symptoms Marcus)

The study of Isaacs and Baker (1994) on medical texts in the Cairo Geniza
and the editions of different books of Maimonides by Meyerhof (1940), Leibowitz
and Marcus (1974), Bos (2002, 2004a, forthcoming) [see under ‘Maimonides’ in the
Steinschneider (1902), pp. 213–218.
dissemination of maimonides’ medical writings 19

Most of the manuscripts used in these modern editions were also found
in European libraries. Many of them were in Judeo-Arabic and some
others in Arabic. But European Jews were not the only ones who sup-
posedly used them, and I wonder whether difficult external conditions
for preservation, classification and researchers’ access or a cultural
conception about preserving texts in the ancient Islamic world caused
this to be the case: namely, that there are so few known manuscripts
from libraries in Arab countries.
The scant number of Arabic manuscripts becomes even more obvious
if we compare them with the Hebrew ones: e.g., his Aphorisms, his major
work, has been preserved in 10 Arabic manuscripts and 38 Hebrew
ones.4 This notable difference between the numbers of manuscripts
in the respective languages baffles me, since the number of people
who could read the Arabic texts was much larger than the number of
Hebrew readers. I wondered whether Maimonides was less appreciated
in the Arab environment.
I therefore decided to compare Maimonides with other physicians.
As a criterion to limit the field, I used some Muslim Spanish authors
for comparison and followed the article “Corpus medicorum arabico-
hispanorum”5 by a group of Spanish researchers on Arabic medicine.
I expected to find a wide circulation of Arabic manuscripts of texts by
the main authors. (Table 1)
First at all, I compared Maimonides with Averroes because they were
living during the same period and their works coincide in subject and
language. Both were born in Cordova, both wrote philosophical and

Table 1. Arabic mss. dissemination of some Spanish-Muslim authors

Averroes (1126–1198) Kulliyat 5 mss. (Álvarez ed.)
Ibn al-Baytar (1197–1248) Jami 86 mss. (Peña et al.)
Abulcasis (c. 936–c. 1010) Tasrif 41 mss. (Peña et al.)
Maimonides Aphorisms 10 (Bos ed.)
Maimonides On hemorrhoids 10 (Bos ed.)
Averroes Commentary on 15 mss. (Peña et al.)
Avicenna’s Urjuzat

Twenty three of Nathan ha-Meati’s translation and fifteen of the Zerahia Gracian
one. See Richler (1986).
Peña et al. (1981).
20 lola ferre

medical treatises, both were translated into Hebrew as well as Latin

and both had an influence on the Christian world, although Averroes
far more so, given his importance to medieval philosophers. I was very
surprised when I discovered that Averroes’ famous medical encyclopae-
dia, Kitab al-Kulliyat fi-l-tibb (Book of the Generalities in Medicine) is preserved
in only five complete Arabic manuscripts.6 This limited dissemination
could have been the result of many things: the pre-eminence of eastern
authors such as Avicenna, or geopolitical circumstances, since his period
was, in many senses, the end of the Muslim domination of Spain and
the end of Islamic philosophy.
However, another factor could have had a decisive influence on the
limited distribution of both Averroes and Maimonides in the field of
Muslim studies: censorship under Almohad control, since Averroes was
considered heterodox, and Maimonides, Jewish. Such a conjecture is
borne out by an analysis of the Hispano-Muslim author Ibn al-Baytar,
who mentions Averroes only once, and never refers to Maimonides.
The latter omission is even more significant bearing in mind that the
only Arab manuscript in existence of the Book on the Names of Drugs was
copied by none other than Ibn al-Baytar.7 Camilo Álvarez de Morales
compared various plant names which appear in this book, with Ibn
al-Baytar’s Kitab al-Jami li-mufradat al-adwiya wa-l-agiya (The Comprehensive
Book on Materia Medica and Foodstuffs), and concluded that Ibn al-Baytar
used Maimonides’ work. Why would an author, so apparently generous
in reference to sources as was Ibn al-Baytar, overlook other well-known
writers of the time? It does now appear that this self-censorship was
imposed by the political ambience created by the Almohads.8
Medical books of other Muslim Spanish authors were in general
preserved in a small number of manuscripts, the exception being two
books, Kitab al-Jami by Ibn al-Baytar (86),9 and the Kitab al-tasrif li man
ajiza an al-ta lif by Abulcasis (41).10 In the aforementioned article,11

See the edition by Fórneas Besteiro and Álvarez de Morales (Averroes (1987)),
and modern Spanish translation by Vázquez de Benito and Álvarez de Morales (Aver-
roes (2003)).
Maimonides (1940), ed. Meyerhof, pp. LVII–LXI.
Camilo Álvarez de Morales has developed this theme in an unpublished confer-
ence talk: “Antecedentes andalusíes del Kitab al-yami’ li-mufradat al-adwiya wa-l-agdiya de
Ibn al-Baytar: las ausencias de Averroes y Maimónides”. I am most grateful for his
permission to use this work here.
Peña et al. (1981), pp. 100–102.
Peña et al. (1981), pp. 83–84.
Peña et al. (1981).
dissemination of maimonides’ medical writings 21

51 medical authors are quoted, and only these two authors along with
Averroes and his Kitab Sarh urjuzat Ibn Sin fi l-tibb (Commentary on Avicenna’s
Poem on medicine) (15)12 exceeded the number of ten that we found in
the Aphorisms and the Book on Hemorrhoids by Maimonides.
After these comparisons, the number of Arabic or Judeo-Arabic
manuscripts of Maimonides’ medical works no longer seems so small.
We can assume that their limited diffusion in the context of Arab
medicine was due more to external circumstances than a lack of esteem
for his works.
Many Arabic texts were in Judeo-Arabic, thus they were most likely
intended for Jewish readers. Nevertheless, this does not exclude Muslims
from being readers of Maimonides’ books; in fact some of them were
written for Muslim nobles. Preservation of his medical works was mainly
due to Jews who were Arabic-speakers, but this can also be attributed
to some Muslim authors whose books are known in Hebrew script.13
There are many testimonies to the great prestige which Maimonides
enjoyed in his day.14 We may conclude that Maimonides was quite
well known in the Arabic environment, although he never reached the
popularity of eastern authors such as Avicenna or western ones like
Ibn al-Baytar or Abulcasis. He was a relatively late author in regard
to the golden age of Muslim medical writings. His medical books were
read, mainly but not exclusively, by Jews in Muslim countries and he
influenced the western Jewish world for a long time: there is a Hebrew
manuscript copy of the Book on hemorrhoids in oriental script of the
seventeenth century.15

Translations of Maimonides’ Works

Jews who moved from al-Andalus to Provence, especially the family of

Ibn Tibbon, started the translation of Maimonides’ Arabic books into
Hebrew early on. The first work of Maimonides that caught their attention
was the Guide for the Perplexed. Samuel ibn Tibbon, who belonged to the
family’s second generation, translated it when Maimonides was still

Peña et al. (1981), p. 93.
For instance, the only preserved manuscript of Kitāb al-Adwiya al-Mufrada by Ibn
Wāfid was in Judeo-Arabic; the modern editor converted the Hebrew script into Arabic,
see Ibn Wāfid (1995), ed. Aguirre de Cárcer.
See Meyerhof (1929) and Ferre (2007).
Maimonides (forthcoming), ed. Bos.
22 lola ferre

alive. Moses ibn Tibbon, who belonged to the third generation of this
family, began translating the medical works.
We can observe the same process in regard to Latin translations.
The first book to be translated was the Guide for the Perplexed, and then
the medical works.
This major philosophical work was also translated into some Romance
languages, such as Italian or Spanish,16 but as far as I know, there were
no Romance translations of the medical works.
So we could say that Maimonides’ philosophical work paved the
way for the future translations of his medical treatises. The increasing
appreciation of Maimonides as a philosopher encouraged both Jews
and Christians to read his medical books.
According to Hasselhoff, “the last years of the philosophical and theo-
logical reception overlapped with the first translation of Maimonides’
medical tracts. Here we can see an interesting development. The first
tracts were related to (the) philosophical cure of the soul and afterwards
of the body.”17

Dissemination in the Hebrew Language

The first book translated into Hebrew, as well as into Latin, was the
Regimen of Health,18 a text which, in fact, could be considered a link
between medicine and philosophy, especially the third chapter deal-
ing with mental health. This chapter contains valuable advice that is
closer to philosophy or ethics than to medical art. Maimonides himself
In all of these, the skilful physician should place nothing ahead of rec-
tifying the state of the psyche by removing these passions, for truly, this
virtue is to be attained from practical philosophy, and from the admoni-
tions of the Law.19

Maimonides (1987), ed. Lazar.
Hasselhoff (2001), p. 277.
Arabic text: 4 manuscripts/Hebrew text: 6 manuscripts/Latin text: 4 manuscripts
(8 editions from 1472–1838).
Maimonides (1964), ed. Bar-Sela et al., p. 25.
dissemination of maimonides’ medical writings 23

Table 2. Translators into Hebrew

On Hemorrhoids 13th cent., anonymous

Moses ibn Tibbon
1277–1291 Gracian Hen
On Asthma 13th cent., anonymous
1320: Samuel Benveniste
1379–90: Yehoshua de Xativa
(Medical) Aphorisms 1277: Gracian Hen
1279–83: Nathan ha-Meati
On sexual intercourse 1277: Gracian Hen
Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms 1257–1267: Moses ibn Tibbon
Regimen of Health 1244: Moses ibn Tibbon
On Poisons —Moses ibn Tibbon
—Gracian Hen
On the Causes of Symptoms 13th c., anonymous

As we can observe in Table 2 most of the translations into Hebrew

were made in the thirteenth century, mainly by two translators: Moses
ibn Tibbon and Gracian Hen.
Moses’ father, Samuel, specialized in the translation of Maimonides’
philosophical works, just as Moses did with his medical ones. Such a prolific
translator did not restrict himself to medical texts but extended his work
to astronomical and philosophical authors, such as Aristotle or Averroes.
Gracian Hen, also known as Zerahiah ben Shealtiel, belonged to
a wealthy family. He was born and grew up in Barcelona and moved
to Rome when the great controversy about Maimonides’ philosophy
was taking place in Barcelona. The Jewish community of Rome, on
the other hand, seemed extremely interested in the Jewish and Muslim
heritage. He was a translator, doctor and philosopher, and an expert
on Maimonides’ Guide. He also translated Aristotle and Averroes, along
with important medical works.
The main translators of Maimonides’ medical works were linked to
the Aristotelic philosophical movement.20
The translator Samuel Benveniste has not been successfully identi-
fied, since this is quite a common name for Catalano-Provençal Jews
and we can find some Jewish people of the period called Benveniste.

Specifically Moses ibn Tibbon and Gracian Hen, who promoted the dissemination of
Aristotle’s philosophy through their translations. See Tamani and Zonta ( 1997), pp. 57–60.
24 lola ferre

All we can be certain of is that he made the translation in 1320 and

that it was known by two titles: Book on Foods (Sefer ha mis adim) and Book
on Asthma (Sefer ha-qatzeret).21
Nathan ha-Meati was not involved with this philosophical activity. He
concentrated solely on medical translations. I consider him an extremely
courageous translator since he dared to translate two very long works:
Maimonides’ Aphorisms and Avicenna’s Canon. In the prologue, which
he wrote for the latter, he mentioned some topics that I have found in
other Jewish translators: the admiration for Arabic writings, together
with the conviction that important scientific work had been produced
in Solomon’s times which were subsequently lost. He was aware he
was rendering a great service to Jewish people by offering them all this
medical literature in an accessible language such as Hebrew.22
Not much is known about the later translator Joshua Shatibi de
Xativa. He was called “a scholar in every science, especially medicine”.23
According to Meyerhof, he translated the text from the Latin version
and not from the Arabic one.24 At the end of the thirteenth century a
new era was beginning, the Arabic language was destined to be forgotten
and Christian physicians to increase their prestige. On many occasions
the Hebrew translations from Arabic medical texts were produced only
as a result of the interest and intentions of Christian universities which
set the books that should be read. This seems to have been the case
with the Hebrew translation of Avicenna’s Canon25 and probably is the
same with this late translation of the Book on Asthma.

Translations and Dissemination in Latin

There were three main stages in the Latin translation of Arabic medical
texts. The first stage was represented by the work of Constantine the
African in the middle of the eleventh century in Italy, and the second

On identification problems and the various hypotheses that have been suggested,
see the introduction in Maimonides (1996), ed. Ferre, pp. 13–14.
Ferre (2003).
According to the colophon of MS Munich 280; quoted in Maimonides (2002)
ed. Bos, p. xxxvi.
Maimonides (2002) ed. Bos, p. xxxvi.
Shatzmiller (1994), pp. 49–50.
dissemination of maimonides’ medical writings 25

Table 3. Latin translations

On Hemorrhoids Giovanni de Capua 13/14 c.
Armengaud Blaise 13/14 c.
On Asthma Armengaud Blaise 1294
Aphorisms Anonymous 14/15 c.?
On sexual intercourse Giovanni de Capua 13/14 c.
Anonymous 14/15 c.
Regimen of Health Giovanni de Capua 13/14 c.
Anonymous 14/15 c.
On poisons Giovanni de Capua 13/14 c.
Armengaud Blaise 1305
Anonymous 1471–5 c.
On the causes of symptoms Giovanni de Capua 13/14 c.

one by that of Gerardus de Cremona in Spain from the middle of

the twelfth century on. The third stage took place from the thirteenth
century and at the turn of the fourteenth century; there was no one
individual translator who represented this period. It was in this period
that the translations of medical books by Maimonides were produced.
These translations shared two of the stage’s features, that is, a renewed
interest in the works of Galen and the necessity for the Christians,
since they were less familiar with Arabic, of seeking the assistance of
the Jews.26
Most of the Latin translations were done by two translators, Armengaud
Blaise and Giovanni de Capua between the end of the thirteenth and
the beginning of the fourteenth centuries.
As regards their relation with Jews, we can say that Armengaud Blaise
was not Jewish but it is well known that he was in close contact with the
Jewish community. He translated several Arabic writings on medicine
from Arabic. In the colophon of the translation of On asthma he wrote:
“ab arabico mediante fideli interprete” (from Arabic through a faithful
interpreter).27 Most likely this “interpreter” was Jacob ben Mahir ibn
Tibbon who could have read out Maimonides’ text, written in Arabic

Jacquart (1990).
See McVaugh and Ferre (2000), p. 3.
26 lola ferre

but in Hebrew script. The same method could have been used with
the other translations.28
Giovanni of Capua was a Jew who converted to Christianity. He
declared this fact and also admitted in the prologue to the Regimen
sanitatis that he had to study Latin and Hebrew in order to produce his
translations.29 This implies two significant facts. First, he did not use
Arabic original texts but the Hebrew versions. Secondly, he was not
the kind of convert that refused or angrily rejected his former religion.
On the contrary, by translating Maimonides he was bringing one of
the best Jewish authors into Christian culture.
With regard to Galenism, Maimonides was a true and faithful admirer
of Galen as a doctor. Indeed, he was understood and recognized within
Christian circles first and foremost as a scholar of Galenism, as is
evident in the Latin title of his Aphorisms: Aphorismi secundum Doctrinam
Galeni. Muntner listed 87 works of Galen.30 I believed also that the
Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms was never translated into Latin
because the Christian physicians preferred the Commentary by Galen to
this one by Maimonides.
Besides those translations, the authors of which are known, several
anonymous versions were produced. Some of the treatises, such as De
venenis, were translated three times.31
After the period that runs from the end of the thirteenth to the
beginning of the fourteenth centuries, there emerged a new interest in
Maimonides, particularly at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning
of the fifteenth century, when some of his books were again translated:
De coitu, De asmate, De venenis and perhaps Regimen Sanitatis.
Nevertheless, and despite the fact that most of his medical books
were translated into Latin, I have not found many quotations from
Maimonides among the Christian authors I have worked on, including
such well-known doctors as Arnau de Vilanova, Bernard de Gordon or
Gerard de Solo, as well as unknowns like Johannes de Parma.

A list of common compound medicines written by Blaise was translated into
Hebrew by Estori ha-Parhi. See McVaugh and Ferre (2000), pp. 1–3. We have found
some more examples of this kind of collaboration between translators, such as Simon
Januensis who translated from the Arabic, or more probably from the Hebrew, the
materia medica of Abulcasis’ Kitāb al-ta rif (Liber servitoris), and the Kitāb al-adwiya al-mufrada
(Liber de simplici medicina) of ibn Sarabi with the help of Abraham ben Shem Tob acting
as dragoman, see Sarton (1927–1948), vol. 2, pt. 2 (1931), p. 1085.
Hasselhoff (2001), pp. 277–278.
Maimonides (1964), ed. Bar-Sela et al., p. 7.
Hasselhoff (2001), p. 276.
dissemination of maimonides’ medical writings 27

One of the main reasons for the absence of Maimonides’ medical

works is related to the time when the Latin translations were made. The
main Christian authors quoted above probably did not know of these
works, since they had lived most of their lives before the translations
appeared. The next question that arises is, why were the translations
done so late? The main body of Latin translation, the Corpus Salernitanum
and the Corpus Toletanum, predates even the redaction of Maimonides’
medical books. After these two stages, the number of translations
became less and focused on the newly translated books by Galen, or
by Muslim authors who contributed to the spread of his theories, such
as Avicenna, Rhazes, al-Kindi and Averroes.
The renewed interest in Galen’s books was encouraged by Bernard
de Gordon and Arnau de Vilanova in Montpellier. It was Arnau de
Vilanova who chose the books that should be translated. Pope Clement
V followed his advice and criteria when he fixed the compulsory lec-
tures for medical students at Montpellier. Arnau de Vilanova did not
use Maimonides’ works or mention them, although he did refer to him.
In his Repetitio super canone Vita Brevis, a discussion of aphoristic style,
Arnau wrote in regard to Maimonides’ commentary on Hippocrates’
first Aphorism: “In hoc fuit deceptus Raby Moyses, quia non bene dis-
tinxit hanc partem a sequenti”.32 Although the Latin translation of the
Aphorism was subsequent to Repetitio super canonem “Vita brevis”, Arnau
de Vilanova had no need of it since, as a translator from Arabic into
Latin, he could read Arabic perfectly.
In Liber de vinis, a text written at the beginning of the fourteenth
century and attributed to Arnau de Vilanova ( probably a false attribu-
tion), Michael McVaugh found the following reference: “vinum quod
rabi moyses in libro suo in tractatu de regimine sanitatis sanum et
convalescentium preeligit”.33

Arnau’s Repetitio super canone Vita brevis is being edited by Michael McVaugh and
Fernando Salmon for the Arnaldi de Villanova Opera Medica Omnia, and they have dis-
covered that the version printed in the Renaissance editions is incomplete; almost all
of the first of the work’s three parts was omitted in the first (1504) and subsequent
editions, and this is where Arnau’s discussion of Maimonides occurs. The quotation
has therefore been taken from the fuller text in MS Munich, CLM 14245, fol. 16v.
The McVaugh-Salmon edition has not been published yet. I sincerely thank Michael
McVaugh who provided me with all these data about the references to Maimonides
in works by Christian authors.
Arnaldus (1520), fol. 264va.
28 lola ferre

The third book in which Prof. McVaugh found a reference to

Maimonides was Henri de Mondeville’s Chirurgia (written before 1319),
where mention is made of Maimonides’ Aphorisms, On Hemorrhoids and
On poisons.34
With regard to the first printed editions, the major surveys of incu-
nabula by Klebs35 and Sarton36 provide quite illuminating information.
Three of Maimonides’ books were printed, one in Hebrew, two in
their Latin version: Regimen sanitatis and Aphorisms. In the list of the 77
authors whose works were printed more more than once, we do not
find Maimonides or any other Jewish author, only five Arabic writers
(Rhazes, Avicenna, Mesuë the Younger, Averroes and Abulcasis) and
Galen, appearing in the 28th position. It is quite clear that there had
been an important change in the mentality of readers of medical texts;
they had started to substitute the classic medical authors for modern
ones. On the other hand, we can appreciate the presence of a large
number of Italian and German authors in the list: most printers were
settled in Italy or Germany. The most popular author in the Arabic
language seemed to be Razi, even more than Avicenna.
We find only three Jewish authors: two physicians, Isaac Israeli and
Maimonides, and Abraham ibn Ezra, with one of his astrological
It seems quite obvious that there was a trend to value new Christian
medical authors (Albert the Great is the first in this list, Arnau de
Vilanova the fourth) and reject or ignore classical, Arab and Jewish
authorities in the list. Given these circumstances, we should consider
and appreciate as a very valuable fact that two of Maimonides’ medical
works are in this list of incunabula.
Even if he was not the most popular author, Maimonides was not
completely absent from university education or medical practice in the
Christian world. For example, the University of Bologna included his
Regimen sanitatis as a topic for a curricular lecture.37
Such a quantity of translations had to have a public and perhaps
we should not look for it in the university world but among the physi-
cians. Thus in the private library of Giacomo Zanetini from Padova

Henri (1892) ed. Pagel, p. 303.
Klebs (1937).
Sarton (1938).
This was for the academic course of 1405. Apparently there were no problems
for Jews to become students on this course. See Cosmacini (2001), p. 215.
dissemination of maimonides’ medical writings 29

(d. in 1402) we find De regimen sanitatis among a variety of books of

philosophy and science.38


It is time now to draw some conclusions, to answer my opening ques-

tions: Did Maimonides play a leading or a supporting role in the his-
tory of medieval medicine? Have we exaggerated his importance as a
medical author?
Dissemination of his medical works was always associated with the
Jewish people. This is quite obvious with regard to Hebrew translations,
but we have also found a close link with the transmission of Arabic
texts written in Judeo-Arabic, and with the Latin translators who had
ties to Jewish communities. The first stage of translation took place in
the thirteenth century, with the Hebrew ones preceding the Latin ones.
In a second stage, at the end of the fourteenth century, the movement
seems to have been in the opposite direction: Latin translations preceded
the Hebrew ones and the Christian University set the pace.
Moreover, most translations of Maimonides into modern languages
have been made from the Hebrew medieval versions. Until now there
have been few Arabic editions and no modern Latin editions.
At times I have thought that interest in Maimonides’ works has
not been based on a genuine interest in his medical books, but rather
on unconditional admiration of his strong and brilliant personality.
Research has paid more attention to praising Maimonides than in really
knowing him in the context of the history of medicine.


Averroes (Abū-l-Walīd ibn Rušd) (1987) Al-Kulliyāt fī l- ibb, eds. J.M. Fórneas Besteiro
and C. Álvarez de Morales, 2 vols., Madrid.
—— (2003) Vázquez de Benito, M.C. and Álvarez de Morales, C. (trans.), El libro de
las generalidades de la medicina [Kitāb al-Kulliyāt fī l- ibb]. Madrid: Trotta.
Brockelmann, C. (1937–1942) Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur. Supplement, 3 vols.,
Leiden: Brill.
Cosmacini, G. (2001) Medicina e mondo ebraico. Dalla Bibbia al secolo dei ghetti, Roma-Bari:
Editori Laterza.

See Federici Vescovini (1983), p. 237.
30 lola ferre

Federici Vescovini, G. (1983) “Arti” e filosofia nel secolo XIV. Studi sulla tradizione aristotelica
e i “moderni”, Firenze: Nuovedizioni Enrico Vallecchi.
Ferre, L. (2003) “Avicena hebraico: la traducción del Canon de medicina”, Miscelánea
de Estudios Árabes y Hebraicos, Sección Hebreo, 52, 161–180.
—— (2007) “Apreciación de Maimónides médico en la Edad Media”, Maimónides y su
época, Madrid: Ministerio de Cultura-SECC, 381–394.
Hasselhoff, G. (2001) “The reception of Maimonides in the Latin world: the evidence
of the Latin translations in the 13th–15th century”, Materia Giudaica 6, 258–280.
Henri de Mondeville (1892) Die Chirurgie des Heinrich von Mondeville, ed. and trans. J.L.
Pagel, Berlin.
Ibn Wāfid (1995) Kitāb al-Adwiya al-Mufrada (Libro de los medicamentos simples), ed. and
trans. L.F. Aguirre de Cárcer, 2 vols., Madrid: CSIC-AECI. (Fuentes Arábico-
Hispanas 11).
Isaacs, H.D. and C.F. Baker, (1994) Medical and Para-medical Manuscripts in the Cambridge
Genizah Collections, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Cambridge University
Library Genizah series 11).
Jacquart, D. (1990) “Principales étapes dans la transmission des textes de médecine
(XIe–XIVe siècle)”, in J. Hamesse and M. Fattori, eds., Rencontres de cultures dans la
philosophie médiévale 1. Traductions et traducteurs de l’Antiquité tardive au XIV e siecle, Louvain-
La-Neuve and Cassino: Publications de l’Institut d’Études Médiévales, 251–271.
Klebs, A.C. (1937) “Incunabula scientifica et medica. Short title List”, Osiris, 4, 1–359.
Maimonides (1940) Sharh asma al- uqqar (L’explication des noms des drogues): Un glosarie de
matière médicale composé par Maïmonide, ed. M. Meyerhof, Cairo.
—— (1964) Moses Maimonides’ two treatises on the regimen of health. eds. and trans. A. Bar-
Sela, H. Hof and E. Faris, Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society.
—— (1974) Moses Maimonides on the causes of Symptoms, eds. J.O. Leibowitz and S. Marcus,
Berkeley: University of California Press.
—— (1987) Text and Concordance of Pedro de Toledo’s Spanish Translation of Mostrador e ense-
ñador de los turbados (Guide to the perplexed), Biblioteca Nacional MS. 10289, ed. M. Lazar,
Madison. 8pp + 4 microfiches.
—— (1996) Obras médicas II. El libro del asma, ed. and trans. L. Ferre, Córdoba: El
—— (2002) On asthma, ed. and trans. G. Bos, Provo UT: Brigham Young University
—— (2004a) Medical Aphorisms. Treatises 1–5, ed. and trans. G. Bos, Provo UT: Brigham
Young University Press.
—— (2004b) Obras medicas III. El comentario a los Aforismos de Hipócrates, ed. and trans.
L. Ferre, Córdoba: El Almendro.
—— (forthcoming), On hemorrhoids, ed. and trans. G. Bos.
McVaugh, M. and Ferre, L. (2000) “The Tabula Antidotarii of Armengaud Blaise and
Its Hebrew Translation”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series,
vol. 90, no. 6 (2000), i–218.
Meyerhof, M. (1929) “Notes sur quelques médecins juifs égyptiens qui se sont illustrés
à l’époque arabe”, ISIS, No. 37 (vol. XII, I), 113–131
Peña, Carmen et al. (1993) “Corpus medicorum arabico-hispanorum”, Awrāq, 4,
Richler, B. (1986) “Manuscripts of Moses ben Maimon’s Pirke Moshe in Hebrew transla-
tion”, Koroth, vol. 9, no. 3–4, 345–356 [in Hebrew].
Sarton, G. (1927–1948) Introduction to the History of Science, 3 vols. in 5, Baltimore:
Williams & Wilkins.
Sarton, G. (1938) “The Scientific Literature transmitted by Incunabula”, Osiris, 5,
1938, 42–245.
Shatzmiller, J. (1994) Jews, Medicine and Medieval Society, University of California Press,
Berkeley, Los Angeles and London.
dissemination of maimonides’ medical writings 31

Steinschneider, M. (1902) Die Arabische Literatur der Juden. Ein Beitrag zur Literaturgeschichte
der Araber, grossenteils aus handschriftlichen Quellen, Frankfurt a. M.: Kaufmann.
Tamani, G. and M. Zonta (eds.) (1997) Aristoteles Hebraicus. Versioni, commenti e compendi
del Corpus Aristotelicum nei manoscritti ebraici delle biblioteche italiane, Venezia: Supernova.
(Euroasiatica, vol. 46).

Carmen Caballero-Navas

Maimonides (Cordoba 1138–Fustat 1204) was one of the most pres-

tigious physicians and medical authors of medieval Jewish cultures.
However, as Gerrit Bos stressed in the preface to On Asthma—the first
of the volumes of his praiseworthy project to edit and translate into
English Maimonides’ medical works—and some other researchers have
stated, whereas the many aspects of Rambam’s life, thought and intel-
lectual production have deserved substantial attention from scholars,
his medical work has apparently been neglected.1 This is especially true
regarding the sphere of medical theory and practice in which I am
interested, that is, the care of women’s health, which has been virtually
ignored but for a few exceptions.2 My past and present research has
been and continues to be focused on the analysis of the reception and
transmission of ideas on women’s healthcare as portrayed in Hebrew
written texts. Thus, I am particularly interested in Maimonides’ views
on female physiology, health and disease, their reception within Hebrew
medical literature, and their influence, if any, over his co-religionists.
Maimonides did not write a gynaecological treatise, but included
some gynaecological material, as well as numerous references to and
mentions of women, in most of his ten medical works. The analysis of
these references is of great interest from the perspective of medieval
natural philosophy, since Maimonides integrated medical views derived
from the Islamic tradition with Aristotelian notions, which were to have
a significant weight in the articulation of theories on female physiol-
ogy and sexual difference throughout and beyond the Middle Ages.3

Maimonides (2002) xxi.
Steinberg and Muntner (1965); Bercovy (1966); Barkai (1998) 64–67.
On Maimonides’ stance regarding medicine see Davidson (2005), Sezgin (1996)
and Maimonides (2002). For an analysis of the impact of Aristotelian philosophy on
the articulation of notions on women throughout the Middle Ages, see Allen (1997)
and Cadden (1995).
34 carmen caballero-navas

However, I have focused my present analysis on Maimonides’ views

on women’s healthcare and diseases of genital organs, as collected
and expressed in the sections of his work devoted more specifically to
women’s ailments, that is, his Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates4
and the Sixteenth Chapter of his own Aphorisms, known as Medical
Aphorisms of Moses, entirely dedicated to women’s medical problems.5
I would like to stress that this paper should be considered a work-in-
progress that is still in a preliminary stage, within the framework of
broader, long-term, ongoing research on Hebrew textual production
on women’s healthcare.

Maimonides on Women and Islamic Medicine

Maimonides’ gynaecological ideas shared the same origin and devel-

opment as those expressed by other Arab authors. Putting aside his
other writings, as a medical writer Moses Maimonides belonged to the
Islamic medical tradition. His work is an example of what has been
called the “Galenization” of Islamic medicine. His heavy reliance on
Galen’s medical theories, known to him from the numerous medieval
Arabic translations, is noticeable in his writings. In fact, his Compendia
of Galen’s Books, which remains so far unpublished, is described by Mai-
monides himself as a collection of passages that he copied verbatim from
Galen.6 Also profoundly “Galenic” are, as we shall see, his Commentary on
the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, where he follows Galen’s commentary, and his
own Medical Aphorisms, which is an extensive synthesis of contemporary
medical knowledge, for the most part Galenic.
Arabic gynaecological treatises rarely circulated independently. Never-
theless, women’s conditions were treated at length within medical ency-
clopaedias, on account of which Arab understanding of this sphere of
medicine achieved wide dissemination.7 According to Monica Green,
the “Galenization” of medicine was especially strong in the field of
gynaecology, which paradoxically had nevertheless attracted little atten-

Maimonides (1961); Rosner (1987); Maimonides (2004b).
Maimonides (1959); Steinberg and Muntner (1965). I am deeply indebted to Gerrit
Bos, who has generously shared with me his unpublished English translation from the
Arabic of Chapter Sixteen of Maimonides’ Medical Aphorisms.
Davidson (2005) 436–438.
Ibn Al-Jazzār (1997) 51; Green (1985) 71–129.
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 35

tion from Galen.8 Arab medical authors had adhered enthusiastically

to the coherent Galenic humoral system to explain the functioning of
the body. This model consistently explicated women’s physiology and
assigned menstruation a central role in the (im)balance of humours, that
is, in female health and disease.9 The Arab authors Haly Abas al-Majūsī
(d. 982/992) in Persia, and Ibn al-Jazzār (d. 1004) in North Africa
had initiated this process of adaptation and development of Galenic
gynaecology approximately two centuries before Maimonides. They
had learned the gynaecological traditions of antiquity from the re-
elaborations collected in Byzantine medical encyclopaedias, and devel-
oped an area of medicine that was rarely treated as an independent
topic, but nevertheless had a long-lasting impact on contemporary
and later Arabic, Hebrew and Latin gynaecology. Their knowledge
was transmitted to the West mainly through the translations into Latin
undertaken by Constantine the African at the end of the eleventh

Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates (Shar fu ūl Abruqrā )

The Hippocratic Aphorisms devoted most of Particula V, aphorisms

28–62, to women’s conditions. The whole work together with Galen’s
commentaries was translated into Arabic by Hunain ibn Yishaq in the
ninth century.11 Around 1195 Maimonides contributed his own com-
mentaries. Written in Arabic, as were all Maimonides’ medical works,
his Commentary was translated into Hebrew by Moshe ibn Tibbon in
the mid-thirteenth century (more than 12 copies of which are extant),
and slightly later by an unknown translator who, according to Muntner,
might be Nathan ben Eliezer ha-Me ati (there are four extant copies
of it). One more manuscript has been identified which corresponds to
a third anonymous translation.12

Green (1985) 73.
Green (2001) 19–22; Ibn al-Jazzār (1997); King (1998).
Green (1985) 71–129.
Galen’s vast written production had been almost entirely translated into Arabic
by the second half of that century. See Jacquart and Micheau (1996) 32–44; Gutas
(1998); Abbatouny, Renn and Weining (2001) 3.
Maimonides (1961); See also Lola Ferre’s contribution to this volume “Dissemina-
tion of Maimonides’ medical writings in the Middle Ages”.
36 carmen caballero-navas

Maimonides’ commentaries on the Aphorisms followed to a great extent

Galen’s interpretations and observations. He frequently pointed to his
agreement by simply stating “this is clear” at the end of a particular
Hippocratic aphorism. In many other cases he added some explanations
of his own and, on occasion, pointed out inaccuracies or inconsistencies,
which he sometimes attributed to Hippocrates’ inexperience in his early
years. Maimonides disagrees, for example, with aphorisms 39, 40 and
53. Aphorism 39 conveys the existence of a relation between the flow
of milk from the breast and the cessation of menses. While refuting
this idea, Maimonides endorses, nonetheless, the notion that maternal
milk originates from blood.13 The two other aphorisms are dismissed as
a mistake of Hippocrates’, who, according to Maimonides, reached a
general conclusion from a phenomenon that he had observed just once
or twice: aphorism 40 links the abnormal accumulation of blood in the
breast to insanity; aphorism 53 deals with the external appearance of
breasts as a sign of the (ab)normal development of pregnancy. Here,
however, Maimonides seems to disagree partially with the notion—the
direct connection between the breast and the uterus—that he had
supported in aphorisms 37, 38, 39 and 52. In aphorism 38, while fol-
lowing this idea, he also agrees with the theory that a male foetus is
[conceived] in the right side of the uterus, whereas female foetuses are
conceived in the left.14 In aphorism 48, Maimonides explains that this
is so because the right side is warmer. Obviously, he is following the
Galenic notion—based upon Aristotle’s concept of “innate heat”—that
males are warmer than females. Innate heat and qualities associated
with humours are instrumental in the articulation of sexual differentia-
tion: females are cold and wet, males are warm and dry. Females’ lack
of innate heat makes them less perfect than men as they are also less
capable of eliminating waste and superfluous humours. This system
explains menstruation as a specific purgation to eliminate surplus and
restore the balance of humours.15 Aphorisms 32 and 33 exemplify this
purgative function of menstruation, and aphorisms 56 and 57 deal
with excess and lack of menstrual flow, in which abnormality derives
from disease.

Green (1985) 44.
A superb study by Sharon Faye Koren (Koren (2004) 322–324) points to the use
that the Provençal kabbalist Isaac the Blind (1165–1235) made of contemporary medi-
cal theory to support his ideas about the evil nature of niddah, based upon the belief
that impure blood originates in the left chamber of the uterus.
Green (1985) 40–46.
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 37

The last point to comment on is the ambiguous position of Mai-

monides regarding the Hippocratic double-seed theory, which stated
that both males and females emit sperm, contributing equally to the
formation of the embryo. Along with many other Hippocratic theories it
was adopted and adapted by Galen, who considered female sperm less
perfect than male sperm. As an Aristotelian, Maimonides had problems
in recognizing the equal contribution of women to generation, since
Aristotle had explicitly rejected this notion.16 In aphorism 48, however,
he refers to female seed. He also alludes to it in Aphorisms 17 and 18
of the Sixth book of his Medical Aphorisms, as will be discussed below.
It seems that, like other medieval Arab authors, he would not deny
the existence of female seed,17 especially since the theory that women
emit sperm was known in Talmudic Judaism.18 In one of his major
philosophical works, the Guide of the Perplexed, he argues, however, that
female seed is an unimportant fluid (III, 8). This argument is in perfect
conformity with Aristotelian thought, according to which man contrib-
utes form to generation, while woman contributes matter.19

Medical Aphorisms (Kitāb al-fu ūl)

Maimonides seems to have written his own Medical Aphorisms, except

for the last chapter, around 1185, although the date of composition is
still uncertain.20 The work, which is organised in twenty five chapters, is
also based to a great extent on Galen’s vast written output. According
to Muntner it was precisely this work of Maimonides that was consid-
ered in the West the “most widely known and wanted repertorium of
Galen” throughout the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.21 This does
not come as a surprise in the light of data revealing that Maimonides
quoted passages from approximately ninety of Galen’s texts.22 Actu-
ally, Maimonides took the trouble to cite after each aphorism the
Galenic work from which he had taken the notions expressed. As he
himself declares, he partly used Galen’s words, although sometimes he

Aristotle (1943) 726a26–30.
In relation to Ibn Rushd’s stance see Bos and Fontaine (1999) 53–57.
TB Niddah 31a.
Aristotle (1943) 729a34–730a35. See also Koren (2004) 327.
Maimonides (2004) xx; Davidson (2005) 446.
Maimonides (1959) xiii.
Davidson (2005) 444; Zonta (2004) 2.
38 carmen caballero-navas

reformulated the ideas when he found it necessary, either by abbreviat-

ing the wording or by adding explanations. Furthermore, as has been
pointed out, some of the works quoted are no longer available in the
original.23 This is especially interesting for the subject of this paper
since Chapter Sixteen, devoted to women’s anatomy, physiology, illnesses
and disorders, quotes on several occasions (aphorisms 1, 3, 9, 14–16,
20, 30 and 35) Galen’s lost commentary on Hippocrates’ De mulierum
affectibus (Diseases of women), whose authenticity is however uncertain.
Among other Galenic works quoted specifically are: De venae sectione, De
locis affectis, Hippocratis Epidemiarum commentarius, De semine, Ad glauconem de
medendi methodo, De naturalibus facultatibus.
Maimonides expounds in this work a broader scope of ideas than
was to be present later in the Commentary. Chapter Sixteen contains
thirty eight aphorisms, which deal with some basic notions already
commented upon. They are not systematically organized and, at times,
he deals with more than one topic in a single aphorism, which results
in overlapping. Menstruation appears as a paramount issue among
Maimonides’ gynaecological concerns, as seventeen out of thirty eight
aphorisms discuss different aspects associated with it. Aphorisms 1 to 5,
12, 13 and 16 are devoted to amenorrhea and retention of menstrual
blood, their aetiology, consequences, preventive treatment and therapy.
Maimonides explains this incidence according to factors that recall the
aetiology of amenorrhea developed by the Arab medical authors Ibn
al-Jazzār and al-Majūsī, that is, amenorrhea (and also anomalous heavy
bleeding) is caused by either the faculty, the matter or the organ.24
Aphorisms 6, 11 and 15 deal with excessive and prolonged menstrual
flow and propose a therapy of smells (11) as an adequate treatment.
The notion that retention and excess of menstrual blood are causes of
disease conforms to the Hippocratic-Galenic view that menstruation is
a purgation of superfluities necessary to restore the lost balance and
stay healthy. Actually, aphorism 5 argues that a woman with normal
menstruation will not suffer from the afflictions associated with reten-
tion. In accordance with this theory, aphorism 9 attempts to explain
why women menstruate. Aphorism 8 deals with sexual differentiation
and maintains that menstruation is a key element of it. This idea is

Maimonides (2004) xxi–xxii.
Green (1985) 110; Ibn al-Jazzār (1997) 41.
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 39

not exclusive to medieval medicine, but has a long history.25 Aphorisms

14, 19 and 22 discuss miscellaneous issues such as lack of desire in
women who have normal menses, menstrual flow during pregnancy
and breast tumours derived from menstrual malfunction, respectively.
Finally, aphorism 7, while discussing differences in the appearance of
the emission, introduces the possibility that a genital discharge might
be due to causes other than menses, such as erosion in the neck of
the uterus. As Maimonides recommends investigating the origin of the
flow, one realizes that the medical interest has given way to a religious
concern. He shows a preoccupation with ritual purity and the laws of
niddah shared by other medieval halakhists, such as the fourteenth-century
Catalan Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi. In his responsum number 49,
he deals with the question of how to determine if the emission of blood
when urinating is due to menstruation or to a disease. The rabbi draws
from different sages’ opinions, and explains that “expert women” are to
check the origin of the emission (a wound, the bladder or the womb) in
order to decide if a woman is ritually impure or not.26 Just as Nissim ben
Reuben Girondi incorporated notions of therapeutics in his Responsa,
Maimonides, just like other Jewish physicians, was preoccupied with
matters beyond medicine which had, like menstruation, additional
implications from a halakhic point of view.
Pregnancy seems to be Maimonides’ second main concern regarding
women’s healthcare on account of the number of aphorisms devoted
to it, ten in all. They treat an assorted variety of issues such as the
above-mentioned appearance of the menstrual flow during pregnancy
(19); opposition between the right and left chambers of the uterus, and
the preference of the male foetus for the right side (25);27 form and
outward appearance of the breasts as a symptom of miscarriage (26);
pulse in pregnant women (28); formation of the foetus (32); flow of
milk in pregnant woman (36); accumulation of blood in breasts dur-
ing pregnancy (38). Only two aphorisms (23 and 24) discuss the same
condition, that is, pregnant women’s craving for harmful foodstuffs or
pica. Maimonides indicates as his sources for this ailment Galen’s De
[morborum] causis et sympthomatibus and De locis affectis. However, Soranus
of Ephesus also mentioned this condition in Book I of his Gynaecology

Caballero-Navas (2008) 50–55; Shail and Howie (2005).
Nissim ben Reuben Girondi (Ran) (1840) 42a–b.
As in aphorism 48 of the Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. See above
notes 14 and 15.
40 carmen caballero-navas

as an argument to support his theory about the detrimental effects on

health of coitus and pregnancy.28 Soranus’ influence reached Arabic
medicine in an attenuated form; however, some of his teachings were
integrated into the Arabic medical corpus, although they were often
stripped of their original Methodism and became Galenized.29
Intimately connected to the previous issue are the five aphorisms
that Maimonides devoted to childbirth. Aphorisms 29, 31 and 34 deal
with normal birth. Interestingly, aphorism 29 elaborates briefly on
midwifery procedures during delivery. Aphorism 33 focuses on difficult
childbirth, and aphorism 21 discusses uterine prolapse after birth. Also
closely associated with pregnancy are two aphorisms on miscarriage,
27 and 30; and three on milk: aphorism 35 on wet-nurse’s milk; the
above-mentioned aphorism 36 on the appearance of milk in a pregnant
woman; and aphorism 37, where Maimonides explains that a newborn
infant should be nourished by its mother’s milk as it derives from the
blood from which the child was created.30
Uterine suffocation also deserved three aphorisms: the already-
mentioned aphorism 16 puts the blame for suffocation on menstrual
retention. Aphorisms 17 and 18 treat the retention of female sperm as
the cause of this ailment. The latter aphorism cites Galen’s anecdote
about the widow who suffered from this illness as a result of sexual
abstention and was cured after the midwife had massaged her genitalia,
provoking an orgasm and the expulsion of retained sperm. This same
episode, although without mentioning any widow, is recounted in an
anonymous twelfth-thirteenth century Hebrew treatise written in Castile,
Zikhron ha- olayim ha-howim be-khlei ha-herayon (A record of the diseases
occurring in the genital members).31 Here, the source is not mentioned,
although it is plausible that the hitherto unidentified Castilian author
might have drawn it from the Canon of Ibn Sīnā, who also presented it as
a general medical case in Book III, Fann XXI, maqala IV, chapter 17.32
The three last aphorisms deal with sexual differentiation. The afore-
mentioned aphorism 8 emphasizes the centrality of menstruation in
sexual differentiation. Aphorism 10 states that male and female sexual
organs differ only in their position, as female genitalia are internal

Green (1985) 32–34; Soranus of Ephesus (1956) 40–42.
Green (1985) 85–101
See above note 13.
Barkai (1998) 68–76, and 118 and 139, for the edition and English translation.
Meyerhoff and Joannides (1938) 66; Ibn Sīnā (2002a) 392.
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 41

and mirror male external organs.33 Finally, aphorism 20 deals with the
female temperament.
Maimonides’ Aphorisms were translated twice into Hebrew: by Nathan
ben Eliezer ha-Me ati between 1279–1283 in Rome, and by Zera ya
ben Isaac ben Shealtiel en also in Rome in 1277. The wide circula-
tion that the Hebrew translations enjoyed is attested by the number
of copies in this language that are still extant. According to Benjamin
Richler, there are 23 extant manuscripts of ha-Me ati’s translation (17
of them in Spanish or Provençal script) and 15 (10 in Italian script) of
Zera ya en’s version.34 Consequently, the latter seems to have circulated
among Italian Jews, while Ha-Me ati’s was most appreciated in Spain and
France.35 Actually, and following Lola Ferre’s words, this is a medical
work written originally in a different language by a Jewish writer that,
once translated into Hebrew, enjoyed wider circulation.36
Furthermore, sometime after its translation into Hebrew, an unknown
copyist, compiler or translator—since it is still uncertain whether the
independent text belongs to the endeavour of one of the two known
translators or is a new version—detached Chapter 6 from the rest of
the work and put it in circulation under the title Liqu ei Rabbenu Mošeh
be- inyanei weset we-herayon (Maimonides’ Compilation on Menstruation
and Pregnancy). According to Barkai, two manuscript copies from the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are still extant.37 He identified a manu-
script kept in Parma38 and mentioned the existence of another one in
Oxford. I have recently identified the copy from Oxford. The extract
was apparently copied by a reader or one of the owners of a copy
of the thirteenth-century medical encyclopaedia Sefer ha-yosher, in the
margins of the section on women’s conditions.39 The copyist organized
it as a short treatise, divided into 29 chapters that follow almost the
same order that they have in the original composition, although there
is a gap between aphorism 21 and 30, which passes almost unnoticed
because the scribe has correlated the numbers.

Green (1985) 42.
Richler (1986).
Zonta (2005) 4.
Prof. Ferre made this statement when delivering her paper “Maimonides’ Medical
Works in Medieval Languages”, at the International Conference Maimonides’ Medical
Work: Context and Consequences (Part I), held in London in June 2004.
Barkai (1998) 65–67 and 223.
Parma, Ms. 1339/2 (3169), ff. 185r–186v.
Oxford, Bodleian, MS Oppenheim 180 (Cat. 2134), ff. 44v–46r.
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The Hebrew Corpus of Medical Literature on Women

The Hebrew corpus of medical literature on women began to circu-

late at the end of the twelfth century, when Hebrew became the main
language in which learned Jews translated and produced knowledge.40
This was precisely the time that witnessed a shift in the production of
written literature on women’s healthcare in the West, where a profusion
of texts, written in Latin and the vernacular languages, was produced
and circulated. This interest seems to have been also shared by the
members of the Jewish communities, who translated into Hebrew and
wrote in this language their own contributions to the field.41
During the last fifteen years more than twenty Hebrew treatises, frag-
ments and sections on women’s healthcare have been identified.42 The
majority of them were written or translated in the Christian territories
of Southern Europe between the end of the twelfth and the fifteenth
centuries, and illustrate the shift towards the Latin model among Jewish
intellectual circles. However, and although their direct source is frequently
of Latin origin, the imprint of Arabic gynaecology in many of them is
more significant than has been generally acknowledged. In my view, this
error of appreciation is associated with two main factors: Arabic gynaeco-
logical treatises rarely circulated independently; and the actual influence
of Arabic gynaecology on Hebrew texts was often indirect.43
In general, the study of Hebrew gynaecology has been focused on
treatises that circulated independently. As a consequence, the role played
by general medical works (in Hebrew and in Arabic) that included sec-
tions devoted to women’s ailments and their sanitary needs has passed
somewhat unnoticed. However, these sections were in general widely
acknowledged and exerted a significant influence on both contemporary
and later works. This was the case with the Arabic encyclopaedia by al-
Majūsī, Kitāb kāmil a - inā ā a - ibbīya (The complete representation of the
medical art), known in the West as Pantegni in the Latin version produced
by Constantine the African, from which it was translated into Hebrew in
1197–1199.44 Al-Majūsī’s assumptions regarding, for instance, the anatomy
of female genitalia (Part I, Book III, ch. 33), menstrual disorders (Part I,

Caballero-Navas (forthcoming).
Green (2000) and (2001); Barkai (1998); Caballero-Navas (2003) and (2004).
See above note 41, and Caballero-Navas (2006).
Caballero-Navas (2003).
Barkai (1994); Barkai (1998) 24.
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 43

Book IV, ch. 34), and the aetiology of suffocation of the womb (Part I,
Book IX, ch. 39), together with the richness of the materia medica—and
the sophistication of its preparation—proposed in therapy, had a signifi-
cant impact on later medieval medical traditions.45 All this knowledge,
widely disseminated throughout medieval Europe, became instrumental
in the development of notions on women’s healthcare until the end
of the Middle Ages. It reached Hebrew writings by means of an early
translation from Constantine’s Latin rendition, but also by an indirect
route: the translation into Hebrew of the Liber de sinthomatibus mulierum,46
one of the three treatises that made up the famous Latin compendium
attributed to Trota of Salerno, in whose aetiology and therapeutics the
impact of al-Majūsī’s gynaecology was patent.47
Actually, most of the notions and theories about the female body
and its care developed by the Arabs were taken into Hebrew indirectly,
predominantly through three routes: Latin translations of Arabic general
medical works; Hebrew medical encyclopaedias that included sections
on women; and gynaecological treatises written at Salerno, or under
the influence of Salernitan authors, which circulated in Latin and in
a number of vernacular languages.
To the first category belongs, besides al-Majūsī’s Kāmil, Constantine
the African’s Latin version of Ibn al-Jazzār’s Zād al-musāfir wa-qūt al- ādir
(Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary), known
throughout the Middle Ages as Viaticum peregrinantis.48 It was also trans-
lated into Hebrew in 1197–99, in fact by the same anonymous translator
that rendered al-Majūsī’s encyclopaedia, under the title Sefer ya ir nativ.
Around the thirteenth century a new Hebrew version was produced
by Abraham ben Isaac, who entitled it edāh la-ore im, also made from
the eleventh-century Latin version of Constantine the African.49 The
relevance of this encyclopaedia for Hebrew medicine can be measured
by the fact that it was translated once more in 1259, this time from
Arabic, by Moshe ibn Tibbon, who entitled it edat ha-derakhim.50 The
Sixth Book of Zād al-musāfir is devoted to diseases affecting sexual organs,
and contains numerous chapters (9 to18) on women’s ailments.51 In my

Green (1985) 109–117; Green (2001).
Barkai (1998) 61–64 and 181–191; Caballero-Navas (2006).
Green (1996) 128–131.
Ibn al-Jazzār (1997).
Steinschneider (1893) 705; Ibn al-Jazzār (1997) 10.
Steinschneider (1989) 703–704; Ibn al-Jazzār (1997) 10.
Ibn al-Jazzār (1997).
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view, the gynaecological ideas developed there by Ibn al-Jazzār were as

decisive in the formation of the Hebrew gynaecological corpus as they
had been for the Latin, although their impact on the Hebrew production
has only recently begun to be studied. All the same, recent research has
revealed that portions of the Zād al-musāfir/Viaticum peregrinantis can be
traced in several Hebrew treatises on women’s healthcare, where they
had been generally quoted without explicit reference to the source.52
The thirteenth-century Hebrew medical encyclopaedia Sefer ha-yosher
also uses profusely the aetiology, nosology and therapeutics developed in
the Zād al-musāfir. Its author apparently draws from two of its Hebrew
versions: from Sefer ya’ir nativ —which he attributes to Isaac Israeli, and
which he sometimes refers to as Viaticum —and from Moshe ibn Tibbon’s
edat ha-derakhim, although he does not always make explicit mention of
the source from which he draws.53
In fact, a second path of penetration of Arabic gynaecology consisted
precisely in the sections on women’s conditions of original Hebrew works
that relied heavily on this medical tradition, like the Sefer ha-yosher. This
encyclopaedia was written in Provence during the last decades of the
thirteenth century by an unknown but highly educated medical author,
who apparently also benefited from abundant clinical experience. He
devoted nineteen chapters to a wide range of incidences related to the
life cycle of women, such as diagnosis, aetiology and therapeutics of
menstrual problems, displacement and suffocation of the womb, uterine
tumours, pregnancy and childbirth.54 Both the practical and the theoreti-
cal content of this work is based on the Galenic physiology, aetiology
and therapeutics developed by Arabic and Latin medical traditions.
Another important Hebrew medical encyclopaedia in which the weight
of Islamic medical tradition may be clearly perceived is the Sefer ori ha-guf,
written in the thirteenth century by Nathan ben Yo el Falaquerah. Only
the last of the four parts into which this comprehensive work is divided
has so far been edited,55 and only some portions of the compendium have
been analysed to date.56 Ron Barkai, who has discussed some aspects of its
gynaecological content within the framework of his study on the Sefer ha-
Toledet —which is the Hebrew translation of Muscio’s Gynaecia—points to

Caballero-Navas (2004) 87–88; Caballero-Navas (2003).
Oxford, Bodleian, Ms Oppenheim 180, fols. 39v–51v.
See above, note 53.
Falaquerah (2004).
Bos and Fontaine (1999).
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 45

the influence of Ibn al-Jazzār’s aetiology of menstrual retention.57 The

compendium must have been very popular until the end of the Middle
Ages in view of the number (24) of extant manuscripts identified to this
Hebrew translations from Arabic monographs on women’s conditions
achieved further direct ascendance over the Hebrew corpus. Among those
translations is the Sefer yesirat ha- ubar we-hanhagat ha-harot we-ha-noladim (Book
on the Creation of the foetus and the Treatment of Pregnant Women
and Babies), which is the Hebrew translation of Arib ibn Sa id’s tenth-
century work;59 or the Sefer ha-herayon we-ha-re em le- Abuqrat (Hippocrates’
Book on Pregnancy and the Womb). This is the Arabic version of De
superfoetatione, and is the only translation of a Hippocratic text that has
come down to us in Hebrew.60 We might consider as belonging to the
same category of texts the Liqu ei Rabbenu Mošeh be- inyanei weset we-herayon,
as we do not know yet whether this is a new translation from Arabic or
was detached from the rest of the work and circulated independently
once it had been translated into Hebrew. All the same, either as an
“independent” treatise or as a section of Maimonides’ Medical aphorisms
it formed part of the vast quantity of Arabic medical literature avail-
able to learned Jews.
The final way in which Graeco-Arabic medicine penetrated the Hebrew
corpus that I would like to refer to here is Jewish consumption of medical
literature in Arabic. This phenomenon occurred only in some regions of
the newly conquered Christian territories of the Iberian Peninsula, where
Arabic continued to be a means of transmission of medical knowledge
for Jews as late as the fifteenth century, even when they no longer lived
under Islamic rule.61 In this context, towards the latter half of the twelfth
or beginning of the thirteenth century, an anonymous author wrote
one of the earliest known Hebrew treatises, the aforementioned Zikhron
ha- olayim ha-howim be-khlei ha-herayon (A record of the diseases occurring
in the genital members).62 The book is divided into two parts: one on
the diseases occurring in male genital organs, the other on those of the
female. The arrangement is similar to that employed by Ibn al-Jazzār

Barkai (1991) 27, 54–56, 95–97.
Bos and Fontaine (1999) 30.
Barkai (1998) 43 and 64; Caballero-Navas (2004) 88.
Barkai (1998) 53–55; Zonta (2003).
Koningsveld (1991) and (1992); García-Ballester (1994).
Barkai (1998) 109–144.
46 carmen caballero-navas

in the Sixth Book of his Zad al-musafir. A close reading of the chapters
on women’s conditions of the Zikhron also reveals that its author knew
Ibn Sīnā’s Canon very well. This can be appreciated in many of the
explanations and remedies, which follow closely part of the contents
of Fann XXI of Book III.63 For instance, a procedure for difficult birth,
for which the author even advises recourse to embryotomy if the size
of the foetus’ head endangers the life of the woman in labour, is also
recommended in Book III, Fann XXI, maqala II, chap. 28 of Ibn Sīnā’s
Canon.64 Nonetheless, embryotomies were accepted by Jewish Law, as
Maimonides himself discusses in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkot Rotsea 1,
9. This and other sources of this treatise, whatever they were, were
certainly read in Arabic,65 as its linguistic influence is obvious on the
Hebrew used by the author, who does not hesitate in resorting to Arabic
grammatical expressions, loan translations or even Arabic words trans-
literated into Hebrew letters.
In short, most of these texts share, though in different measures,
the influence of Galen’s theories—such as his humoral pathology and
the centrality of abnormal menstruation in women’s disease—adapted
in many cases by Arab authors and afterwards translated into Latin
and/or Hebrew. This is not to say that Hebrew literature on women’s
healthcare owes its theoretical and practical medical knowledge solely
to Arabic gynaecology, or that this was the only path of penetration of
Greek medicine. The heterogeneous contents of the Hebrew texts so far
identified, as well as the different notions on female physiology, health
and disease that they convey, show not only a disparity of concerns,
but the confluence of different traditions which can be traced in the
study of the sources. That makes of the Hebrew corpus on women’s
healthcare a rich set of knowledge and practices harmonised together
to a point where it is difficult to delimit boundaries clearly. Nevertheless,
I believe that the weight of Arabic gynaecology in the Hebrew corpus
of literature on women is evident.

Meyerhoff and Joannides (1938); Ibn Sīnā (2002); Ferre (2002).
Meyerhoff and Joannides (1938) 46–47; Ibn Sīnā (2002a) 387r.
The Canon was translated for the first time into Hebrew in the second half of the
thirteenth century: by Nathan ha-Me ati in 1279 and, coinciding in time, by Zera ya
ben Yi aq en, who translated Books I and II. Richler (1982); Tamani (1988); Ferre
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 47

Maimonides’ Impact on Hebrew Medical Writings

In my view, to understand the relationship of Maimonides’ stance

on women’s healthcare with the Hebrew writings on the subject, it is
necessary to acknowledge his intimate connection with Islamic medical
tradition. In this sense, some of his ideas, not very different from those
developed by earlier and contemporary Arab authors, are present in
Hebrew treatises.
However, Maimonides is very rarely mentioned explicitly, at least
in the works I have so far examined. For that matter, Ibn al-Jazzār is
not mentioned either, even in texts where excerpts of his work were
quoted verbatim. One of the factors at the root of this lack of explicit
references to Maimonides is probably that, even when his writings are
contemporary to the shift that gynaecology experienced within the
Jewish communities, his ideas might not have been considered especially
original. By the time that the two works under discussion were translated
into Hebrew, Ibn al-Jazzār’s and al-Majūsī’s influential works had been
already circulating in Hebrew for more than fifty years. Moreover, since
Rambam’s main source—explicitly stated—was Galen, many authors
and copyists perhaps preferred to draw directly on Galen’s authority.
Nevertheless, we know that Maimonides’ works were frequently and
assiduously copied—together with the works of other Arab authors—in
the Christian lands of the Iberian Peninsula.66 Actually, the philosopher
and physician Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (1224–1290) includes Maimonides
in a list of authors of books of medicine upon which “one who wishes
to learn the teachings of learned doctors and be of their number can
properly rely”, presented in his Sefer ha-mebaqqesh by means of a dialogue
between “the Seeker” and a prominent physician.67 R. Moshe Narboni
(1300–1362) also often drew upon Maimonides’ Medical Aphorisms in his
Sefer ora ayyim.68 Medical authors, copyists, medical students and other
readers interested in medicine were exposed to Galenized Arabic gyn-
aecological notions expressed in his writings.
Finally, I would like to make two points by way of conclusion. Firstly,
more than a half of the known Hebrew texts on women’s healthcare
have not yet been critically edited, translated or studied. Their analysis

Garcia-Ballester (1994), 375; Koningsveld (1991).
Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera (1779) 36; Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera (1976) 47–48.
Bos (1995) 225.
48 carmen caballero-navas

will probably contribute new data that might offer us a more com-
plete picture of the configuration of the Hebrew production in this
field. Research work in this direction should include the analysis of
Maimonides’ contribution to the field. Gerrit Bos’ translations from
the Arabic are playing the leading role in the better understanding
of his work. However, in my view, a new critical edition of the extant
manuscripts of the Hebrew translation is required. I also believe that
the study of every individual copy as the distinct product of a copyist
or scribe addressing a particular audience would enhance our under-
standing of the diffusion and reception of medical knowledge within
the Jewish communities and its relation to actual practice.
Second, Maimonides was widely acknowledged as a medical authority
and a philosopher by his co-religionists, some of whom were certainly
interested in the way that he integrated Aristotelian philosophy with
Jewish thought and tradition. His Aristotelian conceptions of female
physiology surely attracted learned Jews who were interested in his posi-
tion regarding issues such as the existence of female sperm and the role
of women in generation. On the other hand, both his Aphorisms and
his Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates circulated widely, accord-
ing to the number of copies preserved. The great number of copies
in Spanish and Provençal script contextualize their reception in the
same area where the majority of identified Hebrew texts on women’s
healthcare circulated throughout the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.
As I noted above, the main ideas of female physiology found in Graeco-
Arabic medicine did not reach Hebrew writings through monographs.
On the contrary, general medical works played a substantial role in the
reception of gynaecological ideas. And it is in this context that we may
understand Maimonides’ contribution to Hebrew gynaecology, as an
agent of transmission of Graeco-Arabic medicine. By adopting Galen’s
nosology and aetiology of women’s diseases, based on his humoral
pathology, Maimonides contributed further to the Galenization of
Jewish understanding of medicine.
maimonides’ contribution to women’s healthcare 49


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Ibn al-Jazzār (1997), Ibn al-Jazzār on Sexual Diseases and Their Treatment. A critical edition of
Zād al-musāfir wa-qūt al ā ir (Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary),
ed., trans. and annotated by G. Bos (London and New York: 1997).
Ibn Sīnā (2002a), Canūn fi a - ib. Hebrew translation. Facsimile edition of MS 2197,
Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna (Madrid: 2002).
—— (2002b), Canon medicinae: estudio y edición facsímil del ms. 2197 de la Biblioteca Univer-
sitaria de Bolonia. Companion book (Madrid: 2002).
Jacquart D. and Micheau F. (1996), La médicine arabe et l’Occident médiéval (Paris: 1996).
King H. (1998), Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (London:
Koningsveld P. Sj. van (1991), “Andalusian Arabic Manuscripts from Medieval Chris-
tian Spain: Some Supplementary Notes”, in Forstner, M., ed. Festgabe für H.R. Singer
(Frankfurt: 1991) 811–823.
—— (1992) “Andalusian Arabic Manuscripts from Christian Spain: A Comparative,
Intercultural Approach”, Israel Oriental Studies 12 (1992) 75–110.
Koren Sh.F. (2004), “Kabbalistic Physiology: Isaac the Blind, Nahmanides, and Moses
de Leon on Menstruation”, AJS Review (2004) 317–339.
Maimonides (2007), Medical Aphorisms. Treatises 6–9, vol. 2. Additions and Supplements
to vol. 1; next to critical edition of the Hebrew translations by Gerrit Bos and Latin
translations by Michael McVaugh (Provo, Ut.: 2007).
—— (2004a), Medical Aphorisms. Treatises 1–5. A Parallel Arabic-English Text. Edited,
Translated and Annotated by Gerrit Bos (Provo, Ut.: 2004).
—— (2004b), Obras médicas III. El comentario a los Aforismos de Hipócrates. Trans. Lola
Ferre (Córdoba: 2004).
—— (2002), On Asthma. A Parallel Arabic-English Text. Edited, Translated and Annotated
by Gerrit Bos (Provo, Utah: 2002).
—— (1987), Maimonides’ Medical Writings. Vol. 2. Maimonides’ Commentary on the Aphorisms
of Hippocrates, ed. F. Rosner (Haifa: 1987).
—— (1961), Perush le-firqē Abuqra , ed. S. Muntner ( Jerusalem: 1961).
—— (1959), Pirqē Mosheh bā-refu ah, ed. S. Muntner ( Jerusalem: 1959).
Meyerhoff M. and Joannides D. (1938), La Gynécologie et l’obstétrique chez Aviccene (Ibn Sina)
et leurs rapports avec celles des grecs (Cairo: 1938).
Nissim ben Reuben Girondi (Ran) (1840), Sefer she elot u-teshubot (Königsberg: 1840).
Richler B. (1986), “Manuscripts of Moses ben Maimon’s ‘Pirke Moshe’ in Hebrew
translation”, Korot 9, 3–4 (1986) 345–356.
—— (1982), “Manuscripts of Avicenna’s Kanon in Hebrew Translations, a Revised
and Up-to-date List”, Korot 8 (1982) 145–168.
Sezgin F. (1996), (comp.) Mūsā ibn Maymūn (Maimonides) (d. 601/1204): Texts and Studies
(Frankfurt am Main: 1996).
Shail A. and Howie G. (2005) (eds.), Menstruation: A Cultural History (Basingstoke, Hants.
and New York: 2005).
Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera (1976), Falaquera’s Book of the Seeker (Sefer Ha-Mebaqqesh) trans.
M. Herschel Levine (New York: 1976).
—— (1779), Sefer ha-mebaqqesh (The Hague: 1779).
Soranus of Ephesus (1956), Gynecology, trans. O. Temkin, (Baltimore: 1956).
Steinberg W. and Muntner, S. (1965), “Maimonides’ Views on Gynecology and Obstret-
ics. English Translation of Chapter Sixteen of his Treatise, ‘Pirke Moshe’ (Medical
Aphorisms)”, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 91, 3 (1965) 443–448.
Steinschneider M. (1893), Die Hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als
Dolmetscher (Berlin: 1893).
Tamani G. (1988), Il Canon medicinae di Avicenna nella tradizione ebraica. Le miniature del
manoscrito 2197 della Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna (Padova: 1988).
Zonta M. (2005), “Review of Maimonides: Medical Aphorisms. Treatises 1–5. A Parallel Arabic-
English Edition Edited, Translated, and Annotated by Gerrit Bos”, Aestimatio 2 (2005) 1–6.
—— (2003), “A Hebrew Translation of Hippocrates’ De superfoetatione: Historical Intro-
duction and Critical Edition”, Aleph 3 (2003) 97–143.

Joseph Tabory

1. Introduction

The structure of Maimonides’ great work, Mishneh Torah (= MT) was

the subject of a prize-winning essay by Bernhard Ziemlich in 1901.1
In 1935 Boaz Cohen published an article on the categorization of the
law in MT,2 dealing mainly with the structure of MT and the order
of its books. His article may be divided into three sections. In the first
section he discusses the relationship between the orders of the Mishnah
and the order of the books in MT; in the second section he discusses
the relationship between Maimonides’ order and the order in Islamic
law books (detailing the theological introduction to MT, The Book of
Knowledge); in the third section he lists the books of MT in order,
adding a few comments about each one. In that same year, Rabbi I.
Herzog published an article explaining the order of the books of MT as
a linear progression, each book following logically upon its predecessor.3
A decade later the work of Chaim Tchernowitz, Toledoth Ha-Poskim,
History of the Jewish Codes, appeared and the author offered numerous
examples of the influence of the order of the Mishnah on the order of
MT.4 M. Elon, in his massive introduction to Jewish law, limited himself
to presenting the problem of the order and listing the books, giving
greater detail to those books which discuss issues relevant to modern

Bernhard Ziemlich, “Plan und Anlage des Mischne Thora”, Moses ben Maimon:
Sein Leben, seine Werke und sein Einfluss, ed. W. Bacher et al., Leipzig: Gustav Fock, 1908,
I, pp. 248–315. The first part of the second chapter appeared in Bernhard Ziemlich,
“Plan und Anlage des Mischne Thora”, MGWJ, 45 (1921), pp. 322–336. The first
publication, which bears the date of 1908, must have appeared much later for it refers
to the publication of 1921.
Boaz Cohen, “The Classification of the Law: Mishneh Torah”, JQR, 1935, pp.
Isaac Herzog, “The Order of the Books in Mishneh Torah” [Hebrew], Rabeinu
Moshe ben Maimon, ed. Yehudah Leib Fishman, Jerusalem, 1935, pp. 257–264.
Ch. Tchernowitz (Rav Tzair), Toledoth Ha-Poskim: History of the Jewish Codes [ Hebrew],
New York: The Jubilee Committee, I, 1946, pp. 208–217.
52 joseph tabory

Israeli law.5 In 1977, I. Twersky published his introduction to MT in

which he showed how Maimonides’ classification of the commandments
in MT was based on halakhic considerations while his somewhat differ-
ent classification of those commandments in the Guide for the Perplexed
was based on theological and philosophical considerations.6 Almost a
quarter of a century later, H. Soloveitchik published a methodological
article in which he discussed the problems facing anyone who would
attempt to explain the order of the laws in MT.7
The relatively intensive scholarly discussions about the order of the
laws in MT seem to exemplify the remark of H. Soloveitchik that rab-
binical scholars study the content of the MT while academic scholars
study its organization.8 However, the order of the laws was discussed
by traditional scholars such as Don Vidal of Toulouse, the fourteenth
century author of the Maggid Mishneh, a commentary on MT. In the next
century, Judah el Boutini promised to explain the division of MT into
books and the order of the laws but he considered this of secondary
importance and therefore postponed the fulfilment of his promise until
he should complete his commentary on MT.9 Many people composed
rhymes which served as mnemotechnic devices to remember the order
of the books10 but, as far as I know, no systematic study of this ques-
tion was conducted before Ziemlich’s study. However, even Twersky’s
scholarly introduction to MT11 does not give us definitive solutions to
the problems of order and organization. It is, therefore, worthwhile to
present some considerations of these problems.

Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles [Hebrew], Jerusalem: Magnes
Press, 1973, pp. 955–988.
Isadore Twersky, “The Structure of Mishneh Torah: Juridical and Philosophical
Guidelines” [Hebrew], Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, III, Jerusa-
lem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1977, pp. 179–189; Soloveitchik (next note).
Haym Soloveitchik, “Thoughts About the Classification of the Rambam in
Mishneh Torah: Real Problems and Imagined Ones” [Hebrew], Maimonidean Studies,
4 (2000), pp. 107–115.
Soloveitchik (above, n. 7), p. 107.
See Meir Benayahu, “Rabbi Yehudah ben Moshe Al Butini and his Book ‘Yesod
Mishneh Torah’” [Hebrew], Sinai, 36 (1955), pp. 240–274.
Yehudah Avida, “Mnemonic Devices for the Fourteen Maimonidean Books”
[ Hebrew], Sinai, 35 (1944), pp. 104–108; Israel Davidson, “Mnemonic Devices Con-
cerning the Works of Maimonides”, JQR, 25 (1934–1935), pp. 429–439.
Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 238–275.
the structure of mishneh torah 53

A study of structure is doubly important. It helps us understand

the work and it also helps us understand the author. Questions of
this nature already appear in a Talmudic passage which analyses the
order of the books of the Bible (BT BB 14 b). Several anonymous
passages in the Babylonian Talmud refer to the order of the tractates
of the mishnah, explaining that the first mishnah of a tractate may be
understood if we relate it to material in the tractate which immediately
preceded it.12 Rav Hai (939–1038), considered the last of the Gaonim,
presented the order in which tractates were learned in the academies,
in response to a question about the order of the tractates Kippurim
and Sheqalim.13 However, these discussions are mostly tangential.
Maimonides was apparently the first to present an in-depth analysis
of structure and order, in the introduction to his commentary on the
mishnah of R. Judah ha-Nasi. He also discussed the classification of
the biblical commandments, a necessary preparation for an organized
presentation of the law. We must point out here, as an introduction
to the following discussion, that Maimonides presented us with three
different classification systems for the commandments. One is found in
his Guide for the Perplexed, a classification based on fourteen divisions, a
number clearly favored by Maimonides.14 A second is the list of com-
mandments in Maimonides’ Book of Commandments, which has been
typified by Twersky as a linear categorization.15 The third is the list of
commandments in MT itself, which is divided into 83 subjects, according
to the individual books of MT. This list is constructed as a tree, or as
an outline, for each book opens with the number of commandments

See Avinoam Cohen, “The Saboraic Halakha in Light of bKiddushin 2a–3b
and the Geonic Tradition” [Hebrew], Dinέ Israel, 24 (2007), pp. 161–214 with full
references to earlier literature.
Sherira Gaon, Igeret Rav Sherira Gaon (ed. Binyamin Menashe Levin), Frankfurt a.
Main – Berlin, 1921, pp. 33–34.
The total number of books is fourteen, a number for which Maimonides had a
special affinity. See Yehudah Shaviv, “The Secret of 14” [Hebrew], ¶ohar, 22 (2005),
pp. 55–59.
Twersky, loc. cit. Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz pointed out that the classification
of the commandments in the Book of Commandments matches, with one exception,
the classification of the fourteen books of MT but the order of the groups is different
(Nahum Eliezer Rabinowitz, Introduction to Moses Maimonides, Haqdamah leperush
hamishnah . . . with a commentary [entitled] Yad Peshutah [Hebrew], Jerusalem: Ma’aliyot,
1997, pp. 57–61).
54 joseph tabory

in the book and each of the subsections of the book, the halakhot,
opens with a list of the commandments in it.16

2. The Order of the Mishnah According to Maimonides

A. The Orders of the Mishnah

Since Maimonides gave us only sporadic hints about the organization
of MT, let us turn to Maimonides’ commentary on the mishnah of
R. Judah ha-Nasi to understand how, according to Maimonides,
R. Judah organized the mishnah. The principles presented here may
shed light on the principles which Maimonides thought appropriate
for arranging halakhic materials. Let us note that, according to Mai-
monides, R. Judah first classified all the laws into six categories and
then he decided in what order to present each of the categories. Thus,
according to Maimonides, the mishnah is not a collection of halakhic
works but was rather a single work, organized into several volumes.
We shall now present the way that R. Judah organized these works,
according to Maimonides.
The mishnah begins with the order of Zeraim (Seeds) which deals
with agricultural laws, for man lives on food and, if a person is not
supported by food, there is no way for him to serve God.17 This order
was followed by the order of Mo‘ed (Appointed Times):
for this is the order of the Bible: “Six years you shall sow your land and
gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow”
(Exodus 23:10–11), followed by “Six days you shall do your work, but on
the seventh day you shall cease from labor” (Exodus 23:12), “Three times
a year you shall hold a festival for Me” (Exodus 23:14). After this, he
[R. Judah ha-Nasi] saw fit to put the laws of Women before other disputes,
following the biblical model, for thus God did: “When a man sells his
daughter as a slave” (Exodus 21:7), “When men fight” (Exodus 21:22),
“When an ox gores a man or a woman” (Exodus 21:28) and therefore
he put the order of Women before the order of Damages. The book of

For a comparison of the lists of commandments in these last two works see Ben-
zion Bokser, “Sefer Ha-Mitzvot and Mishneh Torah” [Hebrew], Bizaron, 10 (1949),
pp. 85–95.
Moses Maimonides, Mishnah im Perush Rabeinu Moshe ben Maimon (ed. and translated
by Yosef Kafih, Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kuk, 1963, Seeds, p. 13; cf. Yizchak Shilat,
Haqdamot Harambam lamishnah, Jerusalem: Ma’aliyot, 1992, p. 49.
the structure of mishneh torah 55

Exodus deals with these four subjects, that is: the content of the order
of Seeds, and the order of Appointed Times, and the order of Women
and the order of Damages. And then he went from the book of Exodus
to the book of Leviticus in the order of the Torah and, after Damages,
he put the order of Sacrifices and after that—the order of Purity for that
is the order of the Bible which put the laws of sacrifices before the laws
of purity, for the Bible only begins the laws of purity with “and it was
on the eighth day” (Lev. 22:29).18
The importance of this explanation is that Maimonides did not think
it necessary to give one theory that would explain all the problems. It
is true that the order of the Bible was the main consideration for the
order of the mishnah but logical considerations, such as the primacy
of the laws connected with food, for without food one can do nothing,
could overcome biblical considerations.

B. The Tractates of the Mishnah

The orders of the mishnah are subdivided into tractates. There is
scholarly consensus that the arrangement of the tractates within each
order is based on the number of chapters in each tractate. The longest
tractate (measured by number of chapters) is placed first and the oth-
ers follow in descending order. This is true for all of the orders except
that of Seeds, whose arrangement continues to perplex scholars to this
day. The advantage of this mechanical explanation is not only that it
gives a perfect explanation for five of the six orders but it also explains
variants in the arrangements of the tractate. It has been noticed that
the variants in manuscripts appear only among those tractates with the
same number of chapters. Thus, for instance, we find that the tractate
Gittin in the order of Women may appear before Nazir and Sotah,
after them, or even between them.19 This is understandable for they
all have nine chapters and thus they all precede the laws of marriage
(Kiddushin) which has but four chapters.20 However, this explanation
is mechanical, suitable for librarians but not for scholars.21 It would

Kafih and Shilat, loc. cit.
For details see Ya’akov Na˜um ha-LeŸi Epstein, Mavo le-nusa˜ ha-Mishnah, Jeru-
salem: Magnes Press, 1964, pp. 985–988.
Epstein, loc. cit.
Indeed, it has been claimed that the arrangement according to length is significant.
R. Judah put first those subjects which were most important and devoted more chapters
to them. But this does not explain the variants in tractates of the same size.
56 joseph tabory

seem clear that Maimonides would not consider such an explanation.

However, Maimonides explains that one of the reasons that the tractate
Kinnim appears at the end of the order of Sacrifices is because “its
laws are very few”.22
Just as Maimonides considered the Bible as the main factor for
arranging the orders of the mishnah, so he considered it a main fac-
tor in the internal arrangement of each order. This is most obvious in
the order of Sacrifices:
And when he completed [the laws of ] slaughtering sacrifices and every-
thing related to it, he discussed the other laws of slaughtering [for human
consumption] and this is also based on the order of the Bible for it says
“but only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal
territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you
shall observe all that I enjoin upon you. But whenever you desire, you
may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements” (Deuteronomy
12:14–15). Therefore he put Hullin [laws pertaining to human consump-
tion of meat] after Menahot [laws of flour offerings in the Temple], and
before Bekhorot [laws of firstborn animals] following the order of the
Bible for after “you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settle-
ments” (Deuteronomy 12:14–15) comes “You may not partake in your
settlements of the tithes of your new grain or wine or oil, or of the
firstlings of your herds and flocks” (Deuteronomy 12:17).23
It is worthwhile pointing out that the presentation of the laws of animal
slaughter for human consumption after the laws of slaughtering for
sacrifice could have been explained in a conceptual way: after setting
the table for God, one may set the table for humans. There is no way of
telling whether Maimonides preferred the biblical model as an explana-
tion because he preferred to stick with one principle or he had some
other reason. We will not discuss the arrangement of the other tractates
in this order but we shall note Maimonides’ reason for the place of the
tractates Tamid (the daily sacrifice), Middot (a detailed description of
the Temple and its environs) and Kinnim (birds brought for sacrifices)
at the end of the order. Tamid and Middot have no halakhic content;
they are merely descriptions of how the daily sacrifice was brought and
of the Temple. In other words, they are history and not law, and thus
they are placed at the end. Only Kinnim is after them because, as we
have noted, it has few laws and also because its subject matter is of a

Ed. Kafih, p. 17; Shilat, p. 49.
Ed. Kafih, p. 18; Shilat, p. 49.
the structure of mishneh torah 57

theoretical nature and may never have any practical application. This
is because most of the tractate deals with problems arising from the
intermingling of different types of birds.
An interesting application of the principle that the mishnah follows
the arrangement of the Bible is that laws that have no biblical source
will be placed at the end. This is the reason, according to Maimonides,
that the tractates of Megillah and Ta‘anit are placed at the end of the
order of Appointed Times, since neither of them are ordained by the
Torah although Megillah, of course, may be derived from the book of
Esther. Although Maimonides explained much of the arrangement of
the mishnah based on the biblical model, we have already remarked
that he had to have recourse to other explanations. This is most obvious
in his explanation of the arrangement of the order of Zeraim:
And he arranged the matters in Zeraim as I shall explain. He opened
with Berakhot (Blessings), and the reason for this is that an expert doctor
who wishes to protect the health of a healthy person, will first concern
himself with proper diet, and therefore, he who was assisted by God
[R. Judah] saw fit to start with Blessings for he who wishes to eat may
not do so until he blesses God. Therefore, he found it appropriate to
start with blessings, in order to give the food an ethical aspect. So that
nothing should be lacking in any subject, he discussed all the blessings,
those over food and those of the commandments, and there is no com-
mandment that everyone is obligated to fulfill every day other than the
reading of Shema, and it is not proper to discuss the blessings of Shema
before he discusses the Shema itself, and therefore he began “From
what time does one read the Shema” and all that is relevant to it. Then
he returned to the original topic of the order, i.e. the commandments
related to plants. And he began with Pe’ah after blessings, because all
the [other] required gifts from the plants are obligatory only after they
are harvested and pe’ah is obligatory while the crop is still in the ground.
And that is why it came first. Pe’ah is followed by Demai (laws pertaining
to agricultural produce about which there is a doubt whether it has been
properly tithed), for poor people have special prerogatives here just as in
Pe’ah, as it is said that one may serve Demai to poor people. And after
Demai—Kilayim (laws pertaining to the prohibition of planting mixed
seeds) for that is the the order of the verses in the “kedoshim” portion
of the Torah “you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field”
(Lev. 19:9) and after this “you shall not sow your field with two kinds of
seed” (Lev. 19:19). And after Kilayim, Shvi‘it (the seventh year). It would
have been appropriate that Orlah (the prohibition from eating fruits from
a tree’s first three years) should follow Kilayim for that is the order of
the verses, if not for the fact that Orlah is not inevitable for, as long as
one does not plant a tree, there is no obligation of Orlah but Shvi‘it is
inevitable and Shvi‘it has a special section of the Torah devoted to it, so
58 joseph tabory

he discussed Shvi‘it first. After Shvi‘it—the tractate of Trumah because

Trumah is the first gift given from the grain crop. And after Trumah,
Ma‘aser Rishon (First Tithing), because that is the next gift from the
crop. After Ma‘aser Rishon—Ma‘aser Sheni (Second Tithing) according
to their order. And after this—Hallah, because after the gifts from the
grain crop . . . one grinds the grain into flour and kneads it which makes
it liable for Hallah. And after the grain and its gifts, he discussed fruit
and therefore he discussed Orlah after Hallah. And after that—Bikkurim
(First Fruits) following the order of the Bible for Orlah is in Leviticus and
Bikkurim is in Deuteronomy.24
We have already noted that the mishnah opens with the order of
Zera‘im because one can not serve God if one does not eat properly.
Maimonides continues with this principle, explaining why the order of
Zera‘im opens with blessings. In order to eat, one must bless God. How-
ever, here Maimonides was forced to explain the internal arrangement
of tractate Blessings for it does not open with blessings over food. His
explanation gives us an understanding of the power of association in
the arrangement of laws. Tractate Blessings must include all blessings,
those for food and those for commandments. (Maimonides did not go
into further detail but tractate Blessings includes, besides the blessings
of Shema and the blessings over food, blessings of praise and thanks-
giving and petitionary blessings.) Since there is only one command-
ment which one is obligated to fulfill daily, the reading of Shema, the
mishnah must begins with the blessings of Shema. However, it is not
fit to begin with the blessings of Shema before one has discussed the
essential obligation of reading Shema. This explains why this tractate
begins with “From what time does one read the Shema”. The inclusion
of the laws of prayer in this tractate is clear for prayer is composed of
blessings. However, Maimonides does not explain why Shema should
come before prayer as prayer is also, according to Maimonides, a bib-
lically ordained commandment. It is possible that Maimonides would
have explained this as based on a biblical model but it is also possible
that he thought Shema more frequent than prayer for one is obligated
to read the Shema twice a day and one is obligated to pray only once
a day. In the printed editions of Maimonides’ commentary on the
Mishnah a note was added stating that the reason for beginning this
tractate, and the Mishnah as a whole, with the laws of Shema is because

Ed. Kafih, p. 14; Shilat, pp. 44–45.
the structure of mishneh torah 59

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).

One should begin study of the Mishnah with the unity of God and
the acceptance of the kingdom of Heaven. Maimonides did begin his
list of commandments with the obligations to believe in God, love and
fear Him. However, Maimonides did not use this theological explana-
tion but he preferred a more pragmatic one.
Rabbinic exegesis of the Bible may also serve as an explanation for
the arrangement of the tractates. The laws of marriage (Kiddushin)
follow the laws of divorce (Gittin), in opposition to their more natural
order, because the biblical verse from which laws of marriage are
derived appears after the verse from which laws of divorce are derived:
“he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her
away from his house; she leaves his household and becomes the wife
of another man” (Deuteronomy 24:1–2).
The second principle expressed above in connection with the internal
arrangement of tractate Blessings, that commandments that are inevi-
table take precedence over commandments which may not be necessary,
is applied in other cases also. We have already noted that Kinnim is
put at the end of the order because its subject matter may never find
practical application. Maimonides explains why Shvi‘it, the laws of the
seventh year, take precedence over the laws of Orlah, even though their
order in the Torah is just the opposite:25 Orlah before Shvi‘it. Orlah
may never have any application, at least theoretically, for if one does
not plant a tree, the laws of Orlah have no relevance. (Maimonides
thought of an agricultural society in which planting crops is vital but
orchards are not really necessary.) For a similar reason, the tractate of
Hagigah is put after the tractates which deal with the laws of festivals
because the hagigah sacrifice is not universally offered, being obliga-
tory only for men. By similar reasoning, the precedence of the tractate
of Yevamoth (levirate marriage) to tractates which deal with marriage
finds explanation. Marriage is elective but a man who finds himself in
a situation where levirate marriage is relevant will be forced, by court,
to either marry the woman or release her.

Maimonides ignores, apparently, the short reference to the sabbatical year in
Ex. 23:10–11.
60 joseph tabory

3. The Order of the Mishneh Torah

A. The Order of the Books Compared to the Orders of the Mishnah

Now that we have seen what considerations Maimonides deemed
proper considerations in the arrangement of the Mishnah, we may
examine Maimonides’ arrangement of MT. In the introduction to this
work Maimonides presented its fourteen books, noting the contents of
each book. It is well known that Maimonides rejected the order of the
Mishnah as a model for his work.26 However, this rejection was not a
total rejection. In a very important sense, Maimonides considered the
Mishnah as a model for his work. Just as the Mishnah is constructed
as a tree of knowledge, the whole of Oral Law is divided into orders,
which are subdivided into tractates which are further subdivided into
chapters and laws, so Maimonides constructed MT.27 The work which
encompasses all Jewish Law is divided into books, which are subdivided
into halakhot, which are further subdivided into chapters and laws. We
present here a table (Table 1) which makes this clear.

Table 1.

Mishnah Mishneh Torah

1. Orders 1. Books
a. tractates a. halakhot
1) chapters 1) chapters
a) halakhot or mishnayot a) halakhot

In light of this, it is appropriate to compare the two works to see how

the principles which Maimonides discerned in the Mishnah guided him
in constructing MT. To facilitate this examination, I present a table
(Table 2) comparing the orders of the Mishnah to the books of MT,
based on a table constructed by Boaz Cohen:28

Twersky, Introduction (above, n. 11) p. 183.
See Shamma Friedman, “The Organizational Pattern of the Mishneh Torah”,
Jewish Law Annual, 1 (1978), pp. 37–41.
Cohen (above, n. 2), p. 524.
the structure of mishneh torah 61

Table 2.

Mishnah Mishneh Torah

Knowledge (‫)מדע‬
Seeds (‫)זרעים‬ Love (‫)אהבה‬
Seeds (‫)זרעים‬
Appointed Times (‫)מועד‬ Times (‫)זמנים‬
Women (‫)נשים‬ Women (‫)נשים‬
Holiness (‫)קדושה‬
Asseveration (‫)הפלאה‬
Damages (‫)נזיקין‬ Damages (‫)נזיקין‬
Acquisitions (‫)קנין‬
Claims (‫)משפטים‬
Courts (‫)שופטים‬
Holy Things (‫)קדשים‬ Service (‫)עבודה‬
Sacrifices (‫)קרבנות‬
Purities (‫)טהרות‬ Purities (‫)טהרות‬

Boaz Cohen has already remarked on the affinity between the orga-
nization of the Mishnah and that of Mishneh Torah.29 The table
shows us that the six orders of the mishnah served as the basis for
Maimonides’ division of Jewish law into thirteen books—except for the
Book of Knowledge. This book, which treats of those commandments
which are the foundation of the Mosaic religion, has no parallel in
the Mishnah—certainly not as an independent subject. It is clear that
Maimonides’ philosophical and theological stance compelled him to
create such a work and to put it at the head of MT. Thus he writes,
in his introduction to MT about the commandments in this book, that
one must put them first, before everything else.30
The thirteen other books are based on the six orders of the Mishnah.
The names of four of the orders are retained as names of books of
MT. A fifth, the order of Appointed Times, was changed to Times,
perhaps because the term “appointed times” is not appropriate for
those special times which are not specified in the Bible as “appointed
times”. The only title of a mishnaic order which was not retained in
MT is that of Holy Things.

Cohen, loc. cit.
From the introduction to MT, ed. Shabtai Frankel, Jerusalem – Bnei Braq, 2001,
p. 21.
62 joseph tabory

Maimonides reached the number of thirteen from six mishnaic orders

by splitting up four of them. The order of Seeds was divided in two:
Love and Seeds. Love parallels the tractate of Blessings, whose position
in Seeds is anomalous, as we have already noted. The order of Holy
Things was split into two books (see below); the order of Women was
split into three and the order of Damages was split into four.
Examination of the divisions which were considered as separate cat-
egories tells us something of the world-outlook of the author. Scholars
have pointed out that the orders of Holy Things and Purities, a third of
the Mishnah of R. Judah, discuss issues which had very little practical
importance in his time. They actually encompass somewhat more than
a third of the Mishnah for they total about 200 chapters of the total
of approximately 500 chapters in the Mishnah, in other words—about
40%. R. Isaac Alfasi, who dealt only with issues of practical importance
in his compendious halakhic work known as Hilkhot Harav Alfasi,
ignored most of the tractates in these orders and most of the order of
Seeds. R. Alfasi did include the tractate of Blessings and that of Hullin
in his work but he included only several chapters from the tractate of
Niddah and these were included in his work on tractate Shavuot.31 The
significance of R. Judah’s intensive discussions of material which was
no longer relevant in his time is not absolutely clear. It is possible that
this is because the Mishnah was first organized when this material was
relevant. However, it is also possible that R. Judah did not distinguish,
as far as the obligation to study Torah was concerned, between prac-
tical material and material that was not practical. Maimonides, as a
man of law, intended to create a work that would include all aspects of
Jewish law.32 Therefore, he included also those orders which were not
practical and even gave them a central place in MT.33 What is espe-
cially remarkable is that Maimonides devoted two books to the laws of
Temple and sacrifices, to which R. Judah had devoted only one order.
It does not seem reasonable that he was forced to do so by the length
of the book. The following table gives us the length of each book of

Shamma Friedman, Sefer Hilkhot Rabbati leRabeinu Yizhak Alfasi, Jerusalem: Maqor
1974, Introduction, pp. 36–37.
See Jeffrey R. Woolf, “Reflections on the Place of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in
the Tradition of the Medieval Encyclopedia”, The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedia of Sci-
ence and Philosophy (ed. S. Harvey), Kluwer Academic Publishers: Netherlands, 2000,
pp. 123–139. But Maimonides did not include in his work laws which were no longer
practical. The Talmud had already rejected discussion of these laws, declaring “what
was, was!”.
There are manuscripts of MT which include only ten books. They omit Seeds,
Service, Sacrifices and Purity because they have no practical application.
the structure of mishneh torah 63

Table 3.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Knowledge Love Times Women Holy Things Asseveration Seeds
33 42.5 84 53 48 33 59.5

8 9 10 11 12 13 14
Service Sacrifices Purity Damages Acquisitions Laws Courts
62.5 27.5 84.5 38.5 43 44 41

MT, based on a count of the pages in a one-volume edition of MT

without any commentaries:34
We can see from the table, that if Maimonides had combined the
book of Service and the book of Sacrifice into one book, as they are in
the mishnah, it would have been the longest book of the work. However,
it would have not been significantly longer than the book of Times or
the book of Purity. It would thus seem that it was a conceptual consid-
eration that led Maimonides to divide this order into two sections. It is
of interest that Maimonides, in his classification of the commandments
in the Guide, also divided this subject into two sections but the divi-
sion does not match with that of MT. In the Guide he distinguished
between the laws pertaining to the Temple and the laws pertaining to
the sacrifices. His reason for this is that each has a different purpose.35
But in MT he devoted one book to public sacrifices, including laws
pertaining to the Temple, while a separate book was devoted to private
sacrifices. This distinction was mentioned by Maimonides in his intro-
duction to MT. Maimonides applied here what he had stated in his
introduction to the Mishnah about the tractates of Tamid and Middot.
They were placed last in the order because they were history but they
were important for construction of the Third Temple. Maimonides
placed these laws at the beginning of the book of Service. Ironically,
we may state that modern historians make halakhic texts talk history
and Maimonides made historical texts talk halakhah.
We may now turn to an analysis of the order of the books of MT.
We shall present the books of MT in their order and next to them will
appear the orders of the Mishnah from they are mostly derived.

Sefer Mishneh Torah, Jerusalem: Ketuvim, 1986.
Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed [Hebrew], ed. Yosef Kafih, p. 354.
64 joseph tabory

Table 4.

Mishneh Torah Mishnah

Knowledge (‫)מדע‬
Love (‫)אהבה‬ Seeds I (‫)זרעים‬
Times (‫)זמנים‬ Appointed Times (‫)מועד‬
Women (‫)נשים‬ Women (‫)נשים‬
Holiness (‫)קדושה‬
Asseveration (‫)הפלאה‬
Seeds (‫)זרעים‬ Seeds II (‫)זרעים‬
Service (‫)עבודה‬ Holy Things (‫)קדשים‬
Sacrifices (‫)קרבנות‬
Purities (‫)טהרות‬ Purities (‫)טהרות‬
Damages (‫)נזיקין‬ Damages (‫)נזיקין‬
Acquisitions (‫)קנין‬
Claims (‫)משפטים‬
Courts (‫)שופטים‬

We have already remarked that the book of Knowledge is a unique

presentation in the framework of a halakhic work and it has no pre-
cedent. But, as far as the other books are concerned, we note that just
as the division of the books is strongly connected to the division of the
orders of the Mishnah so the order of the books is strongly related to
that of the Mishnah. The changes relative to the Mishnah are two:
Maimonides opened with the tractate Blessings (the book of Love), just
as in the Mishnah, but he postponed the rest of the order of Seeds until
after the three books which represent the order of Women. The other
change is in the second half of the Mishnah. Maimonides placed the
four books which represent the order of Damages, the fourth order of
the Mishnah, to the last place.
In spite of the similarity, Maimonides’ considerations in arranging the
books in this order seem to be independent of the Mishnah. Placing the
book of Love in first place, immediately after the book of Knowledge,
seems to be connected with the midrashic explanation of putting Seeds
as the first order of the Mishnah: one who plants believes in God. Thus,
the book of Blessings includes those commandments “which we are
commanded in order to love God and remember Him constantly”.36

Introduction to Mishneh Torah (above n. 30), p. 21.
the structure of mishneh torah 65

We have already noted that MT seems to consist of two main sec-

tions. The first ten books present the laws which define the relationship
between man and God while the last four present what is commonly
known as civil law, the laws governing actions between humans.37 The
first ten books are arranged in the order of their frequency.38 Those
which discuss commandments which are constant appear at the begin-
ning followed by those whose fulfillment is occasional. However, in the
second section, comprising four books, we see clearly the influence
of the Mishnah. Boaz Cohen has remarked that these four books
represent four tractates of the order of Damages: Bava Kamma
(Damages); Bava Mezia (Acquisitions); Bava Batra (Claims); Sanhedrin
( Judges).

B. The Arrangement of the Halakhot within a Book Compared to the Arrange-

ment of the Tractates within an Order of the Mishnah
After our examination of the relationship between the orders of the
Mishnah and the books of MT, we may now turn to examining the
relationship between the arrangement of books within an order of
the Mishnah and the arrangement of halakhot within the books of
MT. We shall examine one example and I have chosen to compare the
order of Appointed Times to the book of Times. Again I will present
a table (Table 5) showing the list of works in each one.
Both works begin with Shabbat and Eruvin but the fact that the
continuation is so different shows that even the common beginning
is based on different conceptions. It is well known that the order of
tractates in the Mishnah, as preserved in manuscripts, is based on
the number of chapters in each tractate. The tractate with the largest
number of chapters is placed first and the others follow in descending
order. However, Maimonides’ organization is more complex. A main
consideration is the commandments of the Bible. This is apparently the
reason that Chanukkah and Megillah are placed at the end, for neither
of them are based on commandments found in the Torah. All the other
halakhot are based on biblical commandments and their arrangement
seems to be based on frequency and chronology.

Cf. Rabinowitz (above, n. 15), p. 128. According to Rabinowitz, the first section
deals with the individual while the second section deals with society.
See Twersky (above, n. 6), p. 185, n. 19. Perhaps we should distinguish between
classification and arrangement. Cf. Soloveitchik (above, n. 7) for a similar distinction.
66 joseph tabory

Table 5.

Mishnah Mishneh Torah

Shabbat Shabbat
Eruvin Eruvin
Pesahim (Passover) Shevitat Asor
Shekalim (Monetary tribute for the Shevitat Yom tov
Temple) Hamez umazzah
Yoma (Day of Atonement)
Sukkah (Tabernacles) Shofar, Sukkah velulav
Beza (General Laws of festivals) Shekalim
Rosh Hashana (New Year) Kiddush Hachodesh
Ta{aniyot (Fast Days) Ta‘aniyot (Fast Days)
Megillah (Purim) Megilla vechanukkah
Hagigah (Festival sacrifice)
Mashkin (Laws of Intermediate days
of festivals)

The most frequent time is Shabbat so it, and its companion Eruvin,
appear first. However, the appearance of the laws of the Day of
Atonement immediately afterwards show that frequency was not the
only consideration. Maimonides created a group of halakhot whose
common denominator is the concept of refraining from work. This
group includes three subjects: laws of Shabbat; laws of the Day of
Atonement and laws of other festivals. The common denominator is
stressed by including the root “ShBT” in each of the titles. Although
the Day of Atonement is less frequent than the festivals which follow
it, its sanctity is greater, although less than the sanctity of Shabbat.
The next group consists of those festivals which take place once a
year, following the order of the year, beginning with Passover. It should
be pointed out that the arrangement of festivals based on frequency and
chronology appears in the Torah itself. The list of sacrifices in Numbers
29 follows this principle: first appear the daily sacrifices, followed by
Shabbat (some 50 times a year), followed by the New Moon (12 times
a year) and the rest, the once-a-year festivals, appear in chronological
order. This order serves as the basis for the order of the Tur and the
Shulchan Aruch.
A closer connection between the Mishnah and MT may be discerned
in three places. The first is the inclusion of the laws of Shekalim in the
book of Times. This subject is more appropriate for the book of Temple
the structure of mishneh torah 67

Service since the contribution of the half shekel is part of the obligation
of the daily sacrifices (see Shekalim 4:1).39 Maimonides explained that
R. Judah put Shekalim immediately after Pesahim because that is the
order in the Bible. But he does not explain why it should be included
in the order of Appointed Times. It might be argued that Shekalim
does belong to appointed times because Maimonides defined this com-
mandment as an obligation “to give a half shekel every year” and it
could thus be considered a time-related commandment, just as any of
the festivals in the Torah. But sacrifices which were to be offered once
a year on a particular date, such as the paschal lamb, do not appear in
the book of Times but rather in the book of Sacrifices.40 It would thus
seem likely that the fact that this tractate appears in Appointed Times
in the Mishnah influenced its inclusion in the book of Times.
The second point is the division of the laws of Shabbat into two
sections: Shabbat and Eruvin. The division into two tractates in the
Mishnah is apparently due to the length of the tractate. Shabbat has
twenty four chapters and Eruvin has ten. We may compare this to
the tractate of Nezikin, which originally included thirty chapters, but
was broken up into three tractates, each one numbering ten chapters.41
The division into three sections of ten is purely mechanical and a divi-
sion into subjects would have produced a somewhat different division.
Thus, the division of the laws of Shabbat into two tractates seems to
be solely due to the inordinate length of the tractate. Was the length of
the halakhot also the factor which influenced Maimonides to divide up
Shabbat and Eruvin? Shabbat is the longest of the halakhot; second to
it is Gerushin, which is about 80% the length of Shabbat.42 It is pos-
sible, therefore, that the extraordinary length of the halakhot required a
division into two sections. On the other hand, the creation of a separate
section for Eruvin is anomalous in the work of Maimonides for two
reasons. Firstly, it breaks up the threefold section of rest days which open
the book of Times. Secondly, it necessitated placing a set of halakhot
which had no biblical commands in the second place in the book of
Times. Maimonides opens these halakhot with the statement that we

Twersky (above, n. 6, p. 262) already remarked on this difficulty but did not sug-
gest a solution.
Tchernovitz has already remarked that Shekalim was included in Times due to
the influence of the Mishnah (above n. 4, p. 211).
Epstein (above, n. 19), p. 994.
The count is based on the Ketuvim edition (above, n. 34).
68 joseph tabory

find here only one commandment of rabbinic ordination.43 Presenting

these halakhot here is especially anomalous because they are not even
obligatory (see Blessings 11:3). Thus, again, it is likely that this division
is influenced by the division in the Mishnah.
The third issue is an instructive example of similar results brought
about by different premises. The Mishnah includes the laws of the
commemorative fast of the Ninth of Av as an appendix to the tractate
Ta‘aniyot (fast days). The main body of this tractate deals with fast days
declared in the event of drought. It is generally accepted that fasting
in times of drought was a fairly common occurrence in the Land of
Israel and this was why a complete tractate was devoted to it. It is
very possible that the fast of the Ninth of Av was not observed during
Second Temple times and was re-instituted after the destruction of
the Second Temple.44 This explains why it is hardly mentioned in the
Mishnah and then only as an appendix. Maimonides too includes the
fast of the Ninth of Av as a lesser subject within the halakhot which
are devoted to fast days in times of trouble. However, his reason for
this is very obvious. Fasting in time of trouble is considered a com-
mandment of biblical origin, and is thus appropriate for the subject of
a set of halakhot. Fasting on the Ninth of Av is of rabbinic origin and
is tacked on to a discussion of a biblical commandment.

C. The Internal Arrangement of the Chapters within the Halakha Compared to

the Internal Arrangement of the Chapters within a Tractate of the Mishnah
We may now turn to the level of the tractate. We shall compare the
tractate of Blessings to the book of Love which covers mostly the same
material. The three main subjects of Blessings appear in the book of
Love in the same order.

Maimonides counted, in his introduction to the list of commandments at the
beginning of MT, five positive commandments of rabbinic origin: reading the Megil-
lah, lighting Chanukkah candles, fasting on the Ninth of Av, washing hands and eruvin
(pp. 20–21). The first two were discussed in a separate set of halakhot in the book of
Times, the Ninth of Av was included in the halakhot of fast days which include one
positive commandment of biblical origin: to cry out to God in time of trouble. In the
laws of Blessings he mentions hand washing and lighting Shabbat candles(!) as com-
mandments ordained by the sages.
See J. Tabory, Jewish Festival in the Time of the Mishnah and Talmud [ Hebrew], 3rd
ed., Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2000, pp. 396–401.
the structure of mishneh torah 69

The book of Love opens with the Reading of Shema, followed by

the laws of Prayer (amidah) and general blessings, and we find the laws
of blessings which have no special time at the end of the book—just
as in tractate Blessings. The unique contribution of Maimonides to
this arrangement is twofold. First is the inclusion of the laws of holy
objects (tefillin, mezuzah and sefer Torah)45 and the laws of religious
objects (zizit) in the body of the book, between the laws of prayer and
the laws of blessings. The second contribution is the addition of the
laws of circumcision at the end of the book, as a sort of appendix.
These additions are appropriate according to Maimonides’ definition
of the material included in this book: it includes those commandments
“which we are commanded in order to love God and remember Him
constantly”. But the order of the laws in this book requires examination.
Theoretically, the definition of the content of this book would suggest
that the laws be arranged in order of their utility in reminding one of
God. There is no commandment that can remind one more frequently
of God than the commandment of circumcision, which is the most
permanent reminder, for males, of the covenant with God. Second to
this would be the commandment of mezuzah, a permanent reminder
of God’s commandments which one meets every time one enters one’s
home—for those who have homes. However, Maimonides seems to
consider the act of the commandment as the measure for frequency
of the commandment. According to this, reading of the Shema is first,
because it is obligatory twice a day. This is followed by prayer which
is obligatory, according to the Torah, once a day.46 The act of putting
on tefillin and zizit also takes place once a day, although one may wear
them for the better part of the day. The blessings included in the laws
of Blessings are occasional blessings and are not obligatory at all. If
one wishes to perform one of the actions which requires a blessing he
is required to recite the blessing. But the act itself, and its concomitant
blessing, are not obligatory. It is instructive that the blessings that one is
required to say every day, such as the blessings for the Torah, blessings
connected with getting up in the morning, blessings associated with

Twersky (The Structure, [above, n. 6], p. 185) points out that it would have been
made more sense to put the laws of writing a Torah before the laws of tefillin for the
latter are a subset of the former. However, tefillin were placed first because that subject
is more appropriate for the book of Love.
Cf. Tchernowitz (above, n. 4, p. 211) who thinks that beginning the book with
the laws of Sh’ma is directly influenced by the Mishnah.
70 joseph tabory

prayer, and even the basic obligation to recite one hundred blessings
every day, are all included in the laws of prayer.
Thus, in spite of the superficial similarity of the arrangement of
tractate Blessings and that of the book of Love, the theoretical concept
behind the two is quite different. Of course, we do not know what the
actual reasons were for R. Judah’s arrangement of the tractate Blessings.
It is very likely that his arrangement was chronological and practical.
Although the Babylonian Talmud explained that the Mishnah opens
with the evening Shema rather than with the morning Shema for that
is the order of the biblical verse that commands the reading of Shema
“when you lie down and when you get up” (Berakhot 2a), it is perhaps
more likely that R. Judah opened with the Shema of the evening, for
that is the beginning of the day. He continued with the laws of amidah,
morning and evening, for the amidah immediately follows the reading of
Shema. The Mishnah then continues with blessings pertaining to meals
for one eats after the morning amidah. The Mishnah closes with the
laws of occasional blessings. This arrangement was followed by many
decisors in the following generations, culminating in the comprehensive
work of the thirteenth-century R. Yaakov ben Asher, in his Tur Orah
Hayyim, which was the basis for almost all of the halakhic works which
came after him. Although Maimonides explained the arrangement of
the Mishnah as based on other principles,47 he himself apparently used
another set of principles in arranging the laws of Blessings, arriving at
results which are similar to those of the Mishnah.
In summary, we have seen that there is a close relationship between
the arrangement of the Mishnah and that of Mishneh Torah. The com-
pass of this study does not permit us to examine all the laws of MT in
comparison to the Mishnah. I think that I have shown the importance
of this comparison and the necessity of distinguishing between various
sets of principles which may have led to similar results.


Avida, Y., “Mnemonic Devices for the Fourteen Maimonidean Books” [Hebrew], Sinai,
35 (1944), pp. 104–108.
Benayahu, M., “Rabbi Yehudah ben Moshe Al Butini and his Book ‘Yesod Mishneh
Torah’ ” [Hebrew], Sinai, 36 (1955), pp. 240–274.

See above, n. 24.
the structure of mishneh torah 71

Bokser, B., “Sefer Ha-Mitzvot and Mishneh Torah” [Hebrew], Bizaron, 10 (1949), pp.
Cohen, A., “The Saboraic Halakha in Light of bKiddushin 2a–3b and the Geonic
Tradition” [Hebrew], Dinέ Israel, 24 (2007), pp. 161–214.
Cohen, B., “The Classification of the Law: Mishneh Torah”, JQR, 1935, pp. 519–540.
Davidson, I., “Mnemonic Devices Concerning the Works of Maimonides”, JQR, 25
(1934–1935), pp. 429–439.
Elon, M., Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles [Hebrew], Jerusalem: Magnes Press,
Epstein, Y.N., Mavo le-nusa˜ ha-Mishnah, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1964.
Friedman, Sh., “The Organizational Pattern of the Mishneh Torah”, Jewish Law Annual,
1 (1978), pp. 37–41.
——, Sefer Hilkhot Rabbati leRabeinu Yizhak Alfasi, Jerusalem: Maqor, 1974.
Herzog, I., “The Order of the Books in Mishneh Torah” [Hebrew], in Rabeinu Moshe
ben Maimon, ed. Yehudah Leib Fishman, Jerusalem, 1935, pp. 257–264.
Maimonides, Moses, Guide to the Perplexed [Hebrew], ed. Yosef Kafih, Jerusalem: Mosad
Harv Kook, 1977.
——, Mishnah im Perush Rabeinu Moshe ben Maimon, ed. and translated by Yosef Kafih,
Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1963.
——, Mishneh Torah, ed. Shabtai Frankel, Jerusalem – Bnei Braq, 2001.
——, Sefer Mishneh Torah, Jerusalem: Ketuvim, 1986.
——, Haqdamah leperush hamishnah . . ., ed. and with a commentary [entitled] Yad Peshutah
[Hebrew] by N.E. Rabinowitz, Jerusalem: Ma‘aliyot, 1997, pp. 57–61.
Shaviv, Y., “The Secret of 14” [Hebrew], ¶ohar, 22 (2005), pp. 55–59.
Sherira Gaon, Igeret Rav Sherira Gaon, ed. Binyamin Menashe Levin, Frankfurt a. Main –
Berlin, 1921.
Shilat, Y., Haqdamot Harambam lamishnah, Jerusalem: Ma‘aliyot, 1992.
Soloveitchik, H., “Thoughts about the Classification of the Rambam in Mishneh
Torah: Real Problems and Imagined Ones” [Hebrew], Maimonidean Studies, 4 (2000),
pp. 107–115.
Tabory, J., Jewish Festival in the Time of the Mishnah and Talmud [Hebrew], 3rd ed., Jeru-
salem: Magnes Press, 2000.
Tchernowitz, Ch. (Rav Zair), Toledoth Ha-Poskim: History of the Jewish Codes [Hebrew],
New York: The Jubilee Committee, I, 1946.
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[Hebrew], Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, III, Jerusalem: World
Union of Jewish Studies, 1977, pp. 179–189.
——, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1980.
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the Medieval Encyclopedia”, in The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedia of Science and Philosophy,
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248–315; partially reprinted in MGWJ, 45 (1921), pp. 322–336.

Stefan C. Reif


The object of this brief study is to place Maimonides in the history

of Jewish liturgy in general and in the development of the text of the
rabbinic Hebrew prayers in particular. My interest in doing so arises
out of a conviction that it will prove intriguing to establish precisely
what his contribution was, on the one hand, to the broad acceptance
of the Babylonian rite (or at least a form of the Babylonian rite) that
preceded him, and, on the other, to the emergence of the various
fixed rites—be they, for example, Yemenite, North African, Sefaradi
or Ashkenazi—that became characteristic of subsequent periods. Was
the great “Rambam” conservative or radical, idealistic or practical, as
far as the text of the prayers is concerned? Did he opt for standard-
ization or for variety, and did he distinguish between communal and
individual responsibilities? How did he approach matters of content,
length and linguistic style? Can we identify specific theological trends
in his preferences, say regarding such topics as Israel and the nations?
What were his attitudes to the relations between halakhah, minhag and
midrash within the liturgical context? Is it possible to trace his views
on the role of the Hebrew Bible within the prayers? Above all, what
were the results of his liturgical work and how successful an impact
did it make on later generations? The early twentieth century’s lead-
ing expert in Jewish liturgical history, Ismar Elbogen, did deal briefly
with this subject almost a hundred years ago.1 It is greatly to his credit
that, although many of the scholarly developments concerning the
Genizah texts and other manuscript evidence had yet to take place,

* A version of this paper has already appeared in my volume Problems with Prayers:
Studies in the Textual History of Early Rabbinic Liturgy (Berlin and New York, 2006), pp.
207–28, and I am grateful to the publishers, Walter de Gruyter, for kindly granting
permission for its inclusion here.
I. Elbogen, ‘Der Ritus im Mischne Thora’ in Moses ben Maimon: Sein Leben, Seine
Werke und Sein Einfluss, eds W. Bacher, M. Brann, D. Simonsen and J. Guttmann, vol. 1
(Leipzig, 1908), pp. 319–31.
74 stefan c. reif

much of what he then wrote has stood the test of time. In view of such
developments, however, and the broader nature of current approaches
to Jewish liturgical study, there is undoubtedly a strong case for a re-
assessment of the topic.


Given his origins, migrations and lengthy scholarly and rabbinic life, it
will be necessary to look at the whole of Rambam’s life and establish
whether there are any principles at work there that may also be relevant
to the assessment of his liturgical contribution. Approaching the subject
in this way will perhaps make it easier to set him and his liturgical
efforts in some sorts of geographical and historical contexts. The first
task is therefore to establish precisely which are the relevant sources,
how reliable they are and how they are to be used. Obviously it will
be necessary to undertake a close examination of what he has to say
on the relevant topics in his philosophical treatise Moreh Nevukhim,2 his
halakhic code Mishneh Torah3 and his many responsa4 and to subject these
passages and statements—particularly those that occur in his halakhic
guide—to analysis, evaluation and comparison. Some examples of his
preferred readings in the liturgy will be cited and they will be compared
with other prayer-book texts, both those that have been published in
scholarly editions and those that remain in manuscript. Lessons will be
drawn from such examples and the final part of the article will list the
overall conclusions that may justifiably be reached about his approach
to the prayer-book on the basis of all such evidence.

I have used the English edition of S. Pines, The Guide of the Perplexed: Moses Mai-
monides (Chicago and London, 1963; second edition, 1969); see also the Judaeo-Arabic
and Hebrew in ed. M. Schwarz (Tel Aviv, 2002).
Among the translations and commentaries of Mishneh Torah here consulted and cited
are those of S.T. Rubenstein ( Jerusalem, 1959; fourth edition, 1967); N.L. Rabinovitch
( Jerusalem, 1984); B. Kaplan, Maimonides. Mishneh Torah. Hilchot Tefilah [1]. The Laws of
Prayer ( Jerusalem and New York, 1988); E. Touger, Maimonides. Mishneh Torah. Hilchot
Tefilah [II] and Birkat Kohanim. The Laws of Prayer and the Priestly Blessing ( Jerusalem and
New York, 1989).
J. Blau (ed.), R. Moses b. Maimon: Responsa, (4 vols; Jerusalem, 1957–61 and 1986).
maimonides on the prayers 75


As is self-evident, what require to be noted here are only those factors

that appear to be directly relevant to what came to represent his attitude
to the Hebrew prayers, beginning with his early and formative years in
Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) and his pride in his Sefaradi heritage of the
mid-12th century. Undoubtedly noteworthy are also the cultural setting
of that time and place, his halakhic education within the family and
young Moshe’s overall plans for a novel, systematic and comprehensive
coverage of Jewish law and philosophy in all their vastness. As far as
his acquaintance with the “other” is concerned, the persecution of the
Jews in Spain precipitated the Maimonidean family’s emigration to
Morocco and then subsequently to Eretz Yisrael, providing them with
experiences of both the Islamic and Christian worlds and their forms of
monotheism. His move at about the age of thirty to Cairo, the capital
of the Fatimid empire in the eastern Mediterranean, ultimately led
to communal prominence, leadership of the Jewish community, and
intense medical, communal and scholarly activity. Such diverse interests
inevitably brought about tensions between the purely scholarly and the
religiously practical in his life and work. There were also instances of
involvement in the world beyond Egypt, as exemplified in his authorship
of the Epistle to Yemen and the special relationship thereby created with
that community. A son, Abraham, was born to him in 1186 in a period
of his life—he was about fifty—that was in those times undoubtedly
regarded as senior citizenship and he developed a special relationship
with that son domestically, communally and liturgically.5

S.D. Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (Princeton, 1973), pp. 207–12 and
‘Moses Maimonides, man of action: a revision of the master’s biography in light of the
Geniza documents’ in Hommage à Georges Vajda, eds G. Nahon and C. Touati (Louvain,
1980), pp. 155–67; B. Ben-Shammai, ‘Twenty-five years of Maimonides research: a
bibliography 1965–80’, Maimonidean Studies 2 (1991), Hebrew section, pp. 17–42; M.
Ben-Sasson, ‘Maimonides in Egypt: the first stage’, Maimonidean Studies 2 (1991), pp.
3–30; J.L. Kraemer, ‘Six unpublished Maimonides letters from the Cairo Genizah’,
Maimonidean Studies 2 (1991), pp. 73–80 and ‘Four Geniza letters concerning Maimonides’
in Mas at Moshe: Studies in Jewish and Islamic Culture Presented to Moshe Gil, eds E. Fleischer,
M.A. Friedman and J.L. Kraemer (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1998), pp. 381–400.
76 stefan c. reif

Source Challenge

What immediately strikes the researcher is the strength and extent of

the evidence relating to his overall approach to the matter of prayer as
represented in his Mishneh Torah, Moreh Nevukhim and responsa and how
this situation contrasts with that pertaining to the text of his prayer-book.
The version of the latter work included in the standard editions of his
code is so full of omissions, abbreviations and harmonizations that it
has to be ruled out as a reliable piece of evidence about his precise
preferences in the matter of the liturgical text. There is in existence
in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford a manuscript
with a text of the first two books of the Mishneh Torah authenticated
by Maimonides himself (ff. 1–165) followed, after the signature of the
author, by an additional nineteen folios on which the text of his prayers
is offered.6 But here too there are questions to be asked. Is this addi-
tion some sort of after-thought by the author himself, who had previ-
ously not thought it worthwhile to record the actual wording but had
changed his mind? If so, this is in itself an interesting phenomenon,
possibly testifying to the codifier’s reluctance to become embroiled in
arguments about precise detail. Or is the location of the addendum
perhaps an indication that its insertion was the work of someone else
and therefore to a degree suspect? The evidence in the remainder of
the code does suggest that the liturgical details there match those in the
text recorded in the Oxford manuscript but is one not still left with the
impression that Maimonides was not ab initio greatly enthused by
the prospect of categorically laying down the law about the detailed
wording of the liturgy?7

Content Challenge

Given that the relevant folios of the Oxford manuscript, taken together
with the equivalent evidence from Maimonides’s other works, provide

For details of this MS (Huntingdon 80), see A. Neubauer, Catalogue of the Hebrew
Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library (Oxford, 1886), no. 577, col. 113, and M. Beir-Arié
and R.A. May, Supplement (Oxford, 1994), cols 86–87.
E.D. Goldschmidt (ed.), ‘The Oxford MS of Maimonides’ Book of Prayer’, Studies
of the Research Institute for Hebrew Poetry in Jerusalem 7 (1958), pp. 183–213, reprinted in
his collection of articles On Jewish Liturgy. Essay on Prayer and Religious Poetry (Hebrew;
Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 187–216.
maimonides on the prayers 77

us with some authentic notion of what he regarded as a sound text of

the traditional rabbinic prayers, it remains to be established just how
his text fits into the overall history of Jewish liturgy. Is it early Sefaradi,
North African, Eretz Yisraeli, Iraqi or Egyptian and how precisely
does it relate to the texts of the Gexonim R. Amram ben Sheshna and
R. Sa{adya ben Joseph? If it does not match any one specific tradi-
tion, is it an eclectic rite built by him on the basis of his variety of
preferences in numerous specific instances and therefore a personal
Maimonidean rite? Also to be taken into account is the possibility that
we have evidence here of his acceptance of the local Egyptian custom
in spite of his own predilections for what he had himself inherited
in his early days in Cordova. Part of the problem is that there is no
specific mention by Rambam of the rite that he is opting for and very
little about the general liturgical situation in his day. He defines the
Palestinian émigrés’ customs as erroneous but recognizes the strength
of their communal adherence to these. An unsuccessful attempt was
made by him to put a stop to the triennial cycle of biblical lectionaries
but he reluctantly declined to stir up further controversy by issuing any
categorical ruling against the rites of the Jews from the Holy Land.8
What needs, if possible, to be ascertained is whether his reluctance to
come down firmly on the side of one rite or another is the reason for
his initial hesitation about providing a text of the prayers. Does the
evidence attest to his awareness and tolerance of the great variety of
liturgical tradition still in existence in his day or to a quiet preference on
his part to distinguish between personal and communal commitments
and therefore, at least to some degree, to avoid the issue?

Broader Liturgical Context

To set the scene for the views expressed and the positions adopted by
Maimonides, a few general remarks need to be made. The leading tal-
mudic academies of Iraq had made a powerful impact on the rabbinic
situation in the course of the previous four centuries. Their dynamic
efforts had succeeded in laying down standard interpretations of the
Talmud, in legislating for much of the Jewish world, and in central-
izing Jewish religious practice. In the liturgical area, an attempt had

See the text from Mishneh Torah 13.1 cited below.
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been made to establish an authoritative version of the prayers through

the development of an actual prayer-book. In this connection, such
Gexonim as R. Natronai and R. Amram had, in response to enquiries
from the developing communities of Spain, offered them instructions
about how precisely they should formulate their prayers. For their part,
the Jews of the Holy Land remained determined to maintain their
own liturgical traditions even in the face of scurrilous attacks by their
Babylonian brethren as, for instance, on the part of Pirqoi ben Baboi.
By the twelfth century, the general guidance issued by the rabbinic
leaders in Iraq had had a profound effect on the synagogal customs of
many communities but the next stage of development was again of the
particular rather than the universal and saw the proud emergence of
local liturgical interpretations in such centres as Spain, North Africa,
Franco-Germany, Italy and Byzantium.9 In Egypt itself, Jewish refugees
arrived in numbers from other countries and ensured the existence
there in the Fatimid period of a few competing traditions. The most
famous example of such liturgical variation is that documented by the
twelfth-century Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela:10
There are two large synagogues in Cairo, one belonging to the Jews of
the land of Israel and the other to those of Iraq . . . They follow different
usages with regard to the pentateuchal lectionaries, the Iraqis having
the custom of reading a portion each week, as is done in Spain (and is
our own tradition) and concluding the Pentateuch on an annual basis,
while the Palestinian Jews do not do so but divide each portion into three
and finish after three years. The two communities do, however, have an
established custom of uniting and praying together on the festival days
of Simhat Torah and Shavuot.
If, in addition to those fleeing the Crusaders, we take into account the
absorption into Fatimid Egypt of Spanish and North African Jews, as
well as a strong community of Karaites, it will be clear that the mat-
ter of the form of the daily prayers was likely to have been a highly
controversial one.

This whole development is described in detail in S.C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew
Prayer (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 122–206.
M.N. Adler, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Critical Text, Translation and Commentary
(London, 1907), Hebrew text, pp. 62–63.
maimonides on the prayers 79


In so far as principles are concerned, the first point to be made is that

there are undoubtedly contradictions between Maimonides’s various
works in connection with certain aspects of prayer. When he is com-
posing a code or a responsum his attitude is not necessarily the same
as when he is laying down principles of religious philosophy. In the
last-mentioned area he can claim that it is naive to presuppose that we
pray in order for our prayers to be answered, that it is impossible to
describe God, that it is theologically objectionable to compose poetry
that is heavily laden with rich and complex epithets and metaphors,
and that the meditative worship of the intellectual is a higher ideal
than the performance of sacrifices or the recitation of fixed prayers.11
On the other hand, in his code he proceeds on the assumption that
Jews are obligated to pray in a sincere fashion and to use the formal
texts provided by rabbinic tradition. There are also more general ten-
sions within his work that do not necessarily relate to the difference
between the halakhic and philosophical approaches. For example, he
tends towards the notions that worship in the heart ( avodah shebelev)
requires personal submission to God and to see this as an elitist model
while at the same time continuing the geonic tendency to compromise
in this connection and to set standards that can be met by the ordinary
individual. Similarly, he recognizes that at the popular level there is a
major need for a religious establishment and centralized communal life
and appears to look with a certain degree of envy at Islam’s achieve-
ments in connection with discipline and authority. Where congregational
unity competes with the purity of the rite, he opts for the view that the
former takes precedence. As far as midrash is concerned, pre-sinaitic
activities (such as those of the biblical patriarchs) have no normative
standing and cannot function as precedents so that Maimonides cites the
midrash about patriarchal prayer in his laws of melakhim but not among
those of tefillah. A direct link can, and indeed must, be made between
sacrifices and prayer, as has been done by the talmudic rabbis, so that
the earlier historical form can be acknowledged but the latter, in its
ideal existence, is indubitably superior.12 Part of Maimonides’s rationale

See, for example, Guide I.59 and III.32, ed. Pines (see n. 2 above), pp. 140–42
and 529 and ed. Schwarz (see n. 2 above), pp 149–51 and 536.
I am particularly indebted here to Gerald (Ya{akov) Blidstein who has penned an
excellent summary of Maimonides’s halakhic approach to prayer, with some variations
80 stefan c. reif

here was surely to justify, by reference to such a talmudic notion, his

approval of liturgical centralization, authority and standardization.
Of particular interest is Maimonides’s introduction to the section
on prayer in his Mishneh Torah code where he refers to the passage in
Nehemiah 13:24 about the loss of Hebrew on the part of some of
the Judeans and uses this as a justification for the formulation of the
amidah benedictions by Ezra and his court.13 Blidstein is probably cor-
rect in explaining that Maimonides is here presupposing a move from
the spiritual ideal of the Torah regarding prayer to the pragmatism of
historical reality while he is at the same time adhering to the notion
championed by his fellow scholars of Iraq and Spain that the loss of
Hebrew was to be deplored. Blidstein is, however, perhaps stressing
the halakhic and linguistic angles while underplaying the possibility
of a more theologico-historical interpretation. Surely Maimonides is
here seeking a historical—or, more accurately, quasi-historical—peg on
which to hang his idea of liturgical authority and his approval of the
move from spontaneity to standardization. I believe that Blidstein is
too cautious in his explanation of what motivated Maimonides to lay
such emphasis on the need for the liturgical rites to be fixed. In this
connection he argues (in my translation from the Hebrew) that “there
is no convincing reason to argue that Rambam created the myth of
historical standardization in order to meet the narrow needs of his own
day. On the other hand, it is reasonable to suppose that the motivation
for his consistent stress on the work of Ezra, as he strictly interpreted
it, lay in the message that such work could convey to his contempo-
raries who were taken with the idea of granting themselves freedom to
introduce innovations into liturgical texts.”14 Blidstein’s first claim flies in
the face of the fact that a major liturgical struggle was taking place in
the Eastern Mediterranean Jewish communities of the twelfth century
with regard to the degree of standardization that should be applied to
the texts of the prayers and that those promoting such a process were
very much in need of “historical” precedents. To my mind, his second
claim lays too much stress on the freedom of individuals. It was not a
matter of individuals seeking freedom but rather of locally dominant

of interpretation and emphasis to which I shall draw attention as the theme is dis-
cussed; see his Prayer in Maimonidean Halakha (Hebrew; Jerusalem and Beersheba, 1994),
especially pp. 9–52, 69–74, and 123–43.
Blidstein, Prayer, pp. 38–42.
Blidstein, Prayer, pp. 124–25.
maimonides on the prayers 81

communal rites, such as that of the land of Israel, being inherited,

practised and defended.15
Two more sources may be cited to add to the overall picture in
this area and to exemplify the point that there is a radical as well as
a conservative element in Maimonides’s views and decisions regard-
ing liturgical practice. One of his responsa rules that it is in order for
individuals to recite chapters of Psalms and collections of supplicatory
verses at home but not in synagogue where the standard should be
that of the weakest, whose devotional concentration—a vital factor for
Maimonides—would suffer from such lengthy additions. In another of
his responsa, he courts controversy by his firm rejection of liturgical
poetry but he patently avoids laying down the law on such issues in
his code.16

Individuals Relying on the Prayer-Leader

There are two additional responsa that are worthy of note in this
context since they demonstrate how brave and innovative Maimonides
could be when the need arose and how he sought to justify his rulings
by drawing attention to their importance in removing the danger of
public Jewish embarrassment. The first of these reads (in my translation
from Blau’s Hebrew rendering of the Judaeo-Arabic): “If one of the
congregation says the amidah quietly while the prayer-leader is offering
his prayer, he has done his religious duty. Equally, if one does not recite
the amidah personally, even if he is competent to do so, he can fulfil
his duty by listening to the amidah recited by the prayer-leader . . . One
who hears is equivalent to one who answers in all instances and one
who says ‘amen’ is equivalent to the one reciting the benediction . . . I
shall also describe to you a custom of ours, concerning the amidah of
sha arit and musaf on shabbat and festivals, that I regard as necessary and
appropriate because of the large numbers in the synagogue, a custom
that is similar to what you do locally on Rosh Ha-Shanah. I also arrange

With reference to the document drawn up by Palestinian Jews in Cairo in 1211
in an attempt to protect their liturgical traditions, see the discussion and the citations
of earlier research by M.A. Friedman, ‘ “A controversy for the sake of heaven”: studies
in the liturgical polemics of Abraham Maimonides and his contemporaries’, Te uda 10,
ed. M.A. Friedman (Tel Aviv, 1996), pp. 245–98.
Ed. Blau (see n. 4 above), vol. 2 ( Jerusalem, 1960), no. 261, pp. 490–92, no. 180,
pp. 328–29, and no. 207, pp. 363–66; see also Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1 above), p. 321.
82 stefan c. reif

for us to do this when min ah is so delayed that I fear that the formal
hour of dusk is approaching. I rule that the prayer-leader [immediately]
recites the amidah out loud together with the qedushah and there is no
disadvantage in this for anyone since a congregant who cannot recite
his own prayer can do his duty by hearing the prayer-leader’s prayer
and one who is competent to do so may recite the amidah together
with the prayer-leader, word for word . . . By doing this we arrange for
everyone’s obligation to be met in an obvious way, and avoid the kind
of public act of desecration that occurs when congregants regard the
repetition as an occasion for joking and mockery. On other daily occa-
sions, when there are fewer learned congregants present, the amidah is
recited twice, quietly and then out loud.”17
The second of these reads (in my translation from Blau’s Hebrew
rendering of the Judaeo-Arabic): “The custom you mention of reciting
the amidah out loud twice is absolutely wrong according to all views and
a terrible error for those who are competent to pray since they recite
their prayers in everyone’s hearing and this constitutes an act of gross
ignorance . . . If congregants do not recite the quiet amidah at all but
follow the prayer-leader’s recitation with the qedushah, reciting the text if
they know it, or simply listening if they do not, and bowing with him
as necessary, they all meet their obligation in an organized and orderly
fashion and a lengthy service is avoided. A public embarrassment for
the Jewish people is also avoided since otherwise non-Jews see Jews
spitting, coughing and paying no attention during the prayer-leader’s
repetition. So this is my view about the correct procedure these days,
for the reasons I have outlined.”18

Specific Comments in the Mishneh Torah, Tefillah

2.17: In those places where rain is needed in the summer, such as in the “faraway
sea-isles”, it should be prayed for in the shome ah tefillah benediction whenever
There is a talmudic report that the Jews of Nineveh sought a ruling
from the Patriarch, R. Judah, about whether their need for rain in the
summer should be addressed by way of a special prayer included in

Ed. Blau (see n. 4 above), no. 256, pp. 473–76, and no. 291, p. 548.
Ed. Blau (see n. 4 above), no. 258, pp. 483–84.
maimonides on the prayers 83

the ninth benediction of the amidah concerning agricultural prosper-

ity or rather included in the sixteenth benediction where individual
requirements are usually inserted.19 On the basis of the response that
favoured the latter option, Maimonides constructs a more general rule
that applies to distant places. In his mishnaic commentary20 he is more
emphatic and stresses that the ninth benediction can refer only to the
land of Israel and that a prayer for a rainfall that would be disastrous
for the area of one’s own domicile would be a logical absurdity.21

3.7: Permission is granted to pray the evening service on Friday and Saturday
nights before its time because that service is optional and the timing is therefore
less critical.
Although the Talmud records the practice of Rav to recite the evening
prayer before dark on Friday evening and of R. Josiah to act similarly
on Saturday evening, there are detailed talmudic discussions about
this and some attempts by the later halakhic authorities to limit what
appears to be a considerable liturgical leniency.22 Maimonides, on the
other hand, provides clear support for such a leniency as long as the
shema is recited again at a later hour when it is dark.23

4.1: Even if the time for prayer has arrived, it cannot be undertaken unless the
body is in a state of purity and clothed, the area is free of contamination, there is
nothing pressing on the worshipper’s mind and he can concentrate properly.
Maimonides summarizes the various talmudic rulings with regard to
the preparations that are needed before one commences one’s prayers.24
His summary of the requirements essentially covers the three areas of

BT, Ta anit 14b. With regard to the ‘faraway sea-isles’, it is interesting that as late
as the nineteenth century an Asian Muslim visitor to England was describing it as ‘the
end of the world where the sun appears, far to the south, as weak as the moon. It is
a small island which seems on the globe like a mole on the body.’ See E.B. Eastwick
(ed.), Autobiography of Lutfullah, a Mohamedan Gentleman and his Transactions with his Fellow-
creatures (London, 1857), p. 406.
Commentary on the Mishnah, Ta anit 1.3, ed. J. Qafi˜, Seder Mo ed ( Jerusalem, 1963),
pp. 330–31.
Rubenstein, p. 42; Rabinovitch, pp. 170–72; and Kaplan, pp. 137–38 (see n. 3
above for full references).
BT, Berakhot 27b; ur, Ora ayyim 293.
Rubenstein, pp. 45–46; Rabinovitch, pp. 188–91; and Kaplan, pp. 148–50 (see
n. 3 above for full references).
The sources are generally to be found in BT, Berakhot and are cited in the com-
mentaries detailed in n. 40 below.
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personal hygiene and purity,25 suitable environment and correct frame

of mind.26

4.6: It is the general custom in Babylonia and Spain that one who has suffered a
seminal discharge cannot pray until he has bathed his whole body in water, in order to
fulfil the biblical requirement “Prepare to meet your God, Israel” (Amos 4:12).
Maimonides displays something of an ambivalence in the matter of
pre-liturgical ablutions. He acknowledges that the emission of semen
no longer requires a ritual bath27 and that only in Iraq and Spain was
it still customary for a person to bathe his body after intercourse and
before prayer. In a letter to R. Pinhas Ha-Dayyan, he responds strongly
to those who are critical of his ruling.28 He points out that the custom
of performing such an ablution was practised in Spain and Iraq and
not in Byzantium, Franco-Germany or Provence and evoked some
amusement among non-Spanish Jews who saw in it the influence of
Islam. At the same time, he stresses that he personally still follows the
Spanish custom and that reports to the contrary about his behaviour
are unfounded, untrue and mere figments of imagination. Behind his
anger is a frustration with the need to follow local and not personal
traditions and a tension about the degree to which special washing is
an integral part of the ideal preparations needed for prayer.29

4.8: Prayer should not be recited in a place which is, or might be, ritually
From this passage and a number of others elsewhere in the code, it is
clear that Maimonides follows the PT and not the BT in explaining that
the reason why prayer is not appropriate at a cemetery is because it is
a place of ritual impurity, not because of consideration for the dead
who are buried there.30 He sees this latter consideration as belonging to

See his ruling in Mishneh Torah, Berakhot 6.2, as discussed below.
Rubenstein, p. 47; Rabinovitch, p. 198; and Kaplan, p. 155 (see n. 3 above for
full references).
See BT, Berakhot 22ab.
See his ‘Letter to Pin˜as Ha-Dayyan’ in Letters and Essays of Moses Maimonides, ed.
I. Shilat (Hebrew; Maaleh Adumim, 1988), especially pp. 437–38.
Rubenstein, pp. 49–50; Rabinovitch, pp. 205–6; and Kaplan, pp. 162–63 (see
n. 3 above for full references). Kaplan’s translation ‘there is no such custom’ is some-
what misleading.
PT, Berakhot 2.3 (4c) and BT, Berakhot 18a. See also his comments in Mishneh Torah,
Tefillah 4.8, Shema 4.8, Ta anit 4.18 and Avelut 4.4.
maimonides on the prayers 85

magical beliefs and practices, and therefore forbidden. Special buildings

should not be erected at the tombs of the righteous since their deeds
are their memorials. Visits to cemeteries should not therefore be made
in such religiously questionable contexts or in order to pray but as an
encouragement to contrition and humility; otherwise the time would
better be spent on Torah study.31 What is reflected here is Maimonides’s
opposition to the use of magical notions and superstition in a liturgical
context that should strive for what he regards as more purely spiritual
and theological achievements.32

4.19: For amidah prayers recited at intervals, such as those of the festivals and the
musaf for Rosh odesh, one should reduce the possibility of errors by preparing
one’s formulation and only then set about reciting it.
The general ruling of R. Eleazar is that one should always rehearse
the precise wording of one’s amidah prayer before reciting it (appar-
ently by heart) and the talmudic discussion concludes that this applies
to any such prayer that has not been recited for thirty days.33 While
that discussion refers only to Rosh Ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, ‘peraqim’
and thirty days, Maimonides interprets the reference to thirty days as
a specific allusion to Rosh Æodesh prayers and suggests the rationale
that underlies the ruling.34

5.5: Correct clothing for prayer includes head-covering.

Although some talmudic sources associate head and face covering with
distinction or special piety,35 it was still widely regarded in the early
Middle Ages as no more than a custom to cover one’s head for prayer.36
Here Maimonides includes it with other preparations relating to one’s

Y.S. Lichtenstein, ‘The Rambam’s approach regarding prayer, holy objects and
visiting the cemetery’, HUCA 72 (2001), Hebrew section, pp. 1–34; on his attitude to
superstition, see also Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1 above), p. 319.
Rubenstein, p. 50; Rabinovitch, pp. 209–10; and Kaplan, pp. 164–65 (see n. 3
above for full references).
BT, Rosh Ha-Shanah 35a.
Rubenstein, pp. 54–55; Rabinovitch, p. 223; and Kaplan, pp. 178–79 (see n. 3
above for full references).
E.g. BT, Shabbat 156b.
See Massekhet Soferim, ed. M. Higger (New York, 1937), 14.12, pp. 265–66.
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clothing that are recorded in the Talmud37 and gives it a statutory status
rather than regarding it as an optional custom.38

6.2: When praying with the community one should not prolong his amidah prayer
unduly but he may do so when praying alone.
There is a talmudic report by R. Judah b. Ilai that R. Akiva would in
public worship be brief in the recitation of his amidah prayer so as not
to burden the congregation with waiting for him while in private he
would considerably extend his liturgical activities.39 Maimonides bases
his ruling on this report but appears to soften its impact in two ways.
Instead of referring to congregational inconvenience, he avoids giving
any reason and redefines “lengthy prayer” as “over-lengthy prayer”, at
the same time avoiding altogether any reference to “abbreviating” such
as occurs in the talmudic passage. He also indicates that lengthening
one’s prayers in the private context is not a requirement but merely

7.9: The popular custom in most of our cities is to say the morning benedictions
one after the other in the synagogue, whether there is an obligation or not, and this
is wrong since benedictions should be recited only when there is an obligation.
In spite of the well-established custom of reciting the morning benedic-
tions in the synagogue together with the statutory prayers, Maimonides
strictly follows the talmudic understanding of these benedictions as
relating to particular activities associated with rising in the morning
and not to general praise of God.41 He is adamant about the applica-
tion of the principle that benedictions may be recited only when they
are required and about the erroneous and inappropriate nature of the
custom. He repeats this view in a responsum and it is defended pow-
erfully and at length by his son, R. Abraham,42 but his ruling did not

See BT, Shabbat 10a.
Rubenstein, p. 57; Rabinovitch, pp. 232–35; and Kaplan, pp. 186–88 (see n. 3
above for full references).
BT, Berakhot 31a.
Rubenstein, p. 63; Rabinovitch, p. 254; and Kaplan, pp. 204–5 (see n. 3 above
for full references).
BT, Berakhot 60b; see also Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1 above), pp. 327–28.
Ed. Blau (see n. 4 above), vol. 2, 1960, no. 187, pp. 342–44; Abraham Maimuni
Responsa, eds A.H. Freimann and S.D. Goitein ( Jerusalem, 1937), no. 83, pp.
maimonides on the prayers 87

achieve widespread acceptance since authorities before and after him

found ways of justifying it.43

8.9: By responding amen to the reader’s prayers one meets one’s liturgical obligations
but only if one is unable to pray personally.
In a talmudically recorded controversy between R. Gamliel and the Rab-
bis, the former argued that the one leading the congregation in prayer
could meet the obligations of all the participants, including those who
were competent to pray for themselves, while the latter restricted this
to those who were unable to recite their own prayers.44 In this ruling,
Maimonides opts for the majority view, thus giving the prayer-leader
less halakhic power and less central liturgical authority. In his responsa,
however,45 he appears to support the view of R. Gamliel, laying less
stress on the individual function and more on that of the community
although it has been argued that there he may have in mind different

9.13: On sabbaths and festivals, musaf, like sha arit, is recited quietly by the
individual and then loudly by the prayer-leader.
In this case, Maimonides’s codified ruling is more conventional and
conservative than one of his responsa. While here he records the
need for a repetition of the amidah by the prayer-leader at both the
sha arit and musaf services on sabbaths and festivals, in his responsa
he reports that circumstances had forced him to adopt a more radical
view.47 Given the lack of attention and decorum that such repetitions
encouraged on occasions when the synagogue was particularly full,
and the way in which this was bringing Jewish worship into disrepute
among the Muslims, he had suspended these particular repetitions in
his synagogue.48

Rubenstein, p. 73; Rabinovitch, pp. 279–82; and Touger, pp. 26–27.
BT, Rosh Ha-Shanah 34b.
See the responsum quoted above in the section entitled ‘Individuals Relying on the
Prayer-leader’ and the relevant footnote.
Rubenstein, p. 81; Rabinovitch, pp. 313–20; and Touger, p. 57.
See the responsum quoted above in the section entitled ‘Individuals Relying on the
Prayer-leader’ and the relevant footnote.
Rubenstein, p. 89; Rabinovitch, p. 345; and Touger, p. 82.
88 stefan c. reif

10.2: If the prayer-leader makes a mistake [other than] in [the first and last three
benedictions of] the amidah, my view is that he should not repeat it all because
this would be a burden on the congregation.
Despite the apparently opposing view about this recorded in the BT
and PT, Maimonides rules that the prayer-leader who errs in his public
recitation of the amidah should correct himself.49 When, however, he is
reciting the amidah privately beforehand he need not do so since this
would be troublesome for the congregation by holding up its proceed-
ings. There is manuscript evidence that Maimonides applies this to all
amidah benedictions, not only to the first and last three.50

11.5: The custom in Spain, North Africa, Babylonia and Israel is to light lamps in
the synagogues and to spread carpets on the floor on which to sit, while in Christian
cities Jews sit on chairs.
Maimonides’s reference to the synagogal practice of communities in
Islamic countries and how it varies from that of those in Christian
environments is not typical of his code. What he appears to be argu-
ing is that sitting on a carpeted floor is a perfectly acceptable part of
liturgical decorum for his congregations, perhaps polemicizing against
those who argue that standing is preferable or that the use of chairs
and benches is more dignified. Were there perhaps moves in such
directions in Spain in the twelfth century that inspired such a polemi-
cal stance on his part?51

13.1: Although some have the custom of completing the pentateuchal lectionary over
a three-year period, the widespread custom among all Jewish communities is to take
only one year, beginning just after Sukkot and ending at Sukkot time the next year.
While Maimonides here appears to remain neutral about the Palestin-
ian lectionary, his son, R. Abraham, reports52 that he was definitely
opposed to the customs of the émigré community from the Holy Land

PT, Berakhot 5.4 (9c) and BT, Berakhot 34a.
Rubenstein, p. 91; Rabinovitch, p. 350; and Touger, pp. 86–87; ur, Ora ayyim,
no. 126.
Rubenstein, p. 98; Rabinovitch, pp. 372–74; and Touger, pp. 110–11.
Rabbi Abraham ben Moshe ben Maimon, Sefer Ha-Maspik Le Ovdey Hashem, Part
Two, Volume Two, ed. Nissim Dana (Ramat-Gan, 1989), pp. 180–81.
maimonides on the prayers 89

that had settled in Cairo, but was forced to remain silent about this in
order to avoid communal strife.53

Specific Readings in His Prayer-Book

Some fairly randomly selected readings, as preserved in the Oxford

manuscript of Maimonides’s prayer-book earlier mentioned, will now
be closely compared with their equivalents in some of the earliest Sefa-
radi manuscript liturgies,54 and with the prayer-books of such geonic
and medieval authorities as Sa{adya Gaon, Amram Gaon, Judah ben
Yaqar,55 Solomon ben Nathan, Abudraham,56 and of the most tradi-
tional Yemenite rite, which, as Elbogen appreciated, was particularly
relevant to the study of the prayer-book of Maimonides.57 This may
help clarify whether Maimonides followed a particular tradition or
preferred an eclectic liturgical version and establish the degree to which
his practice was followed in later prayer-books.

1. EDG 193, 11–12: ‫ בשבחו ובזמרו‬in ‫ברוך שאמר‬.58

Rubenstein, p. 117; Rabinovitch, p. 431; and Touger, pp. 162–63.
The manuscripts consulted were the earliest relevant liturgies in the collections of
the British Library, London (= BL), Bodleian Library, Oxford (= Bod.), and Cambridge
University Library (= CUL). See G. Margoliouth, Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samari-
tan Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1 (London, 1905), nos 692–94, pp. 346–54;
A. Neubauer, Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, vol. 1 (Oxford,
1886), nos 1132–35, cols 328–30; S.C. Reif, Hebrew Manuscripts at Cambridge University
Library: A Description and Introduction (Cambridge, 1997), nos 389 and 392, pp. 240–42.
Siddur R. Saadya Gaon, eds I. Davidson, S. Assaf and B.I. Joel, ( Jerusalem, 1941;
second edition, Jerusalem, 1963) (= RSG); Seder Rav Amram Ga on, ed. E.D. Goldschmidt
( Jerusalem, 1971) (= SRA); Judah ben Yaqar, Peyrush Ha-Tefillot Ve-Ha-Berakhot, ed.
S. Yerushalmi (2 vols; Jerusalem, 1968–69) (= JBY).
Siddur Rabbenu Shelomo ben Nathan, ed. S. Æaggai ( Jerusalem, 1995) (= SBN); Sefer
Abudraham (Warsaw, 1877) and Sefer Abudraham Ha-Shalem, ed. S.A Wertheimer ( Jeru-
salem, 1963) (= A).
Tiklal of Y͘ya ben Joseph ibn Sali˜ ( Jerusalem, 1894) (= T) and Z. Madmoni,
‘Ha-Rambam Ve-Nusa Ha-Tefillah Shel Yehudey Teman’ in Yahadut Teman: Pirqey Me qar
Ve- Iyyun, eds I. Yeshayahu and J. Tobi ( Jerusalem, 1976), pp. 273–94; Elbogen, ‘Ritus’
(see n. 1 above), p. 320.
S. Baer, Seder Avodat Yisra el (Rödelheim, 1868) (= Baer), p. 59; Siddur O ar Ha-Tefillot,
ed. A.L. Gordon (corrected and expanded edition, Vilna, 1923, Hebrew pagination)
(= OT), pp. 89–90; I. Elbogen, German edition, Der jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner geschich-
tlichen Entwicklung (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1931; reprint, Hildesheim, 1962) (= EG), pp.
83–84; Hebrew edition, ‫( התפלה בישראל בהתפתחותה ההיסטורית‬eds J. Heinemann,
I. Adler, A. Negev, J. Petuchowski and H. Schirmann, Tel Aviv, 1972) (= EH), pp.
90 stefan c. reif

So RSG (var.), SBN, T, and Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.18, with plural suffix in

SRA as variant (‫ ;)בשבחיו ובזמיריו‬A cites R text as erroneous, feminine
plural as SRA, and his own text as plural suffix, as also in BL Add.
27126 and Bod. Can.Or.108; JBY, BL Add. 18690, Bod. Laud.Or.27
and CUL Add. 541 have feminine plural; CUL Add. 1204 has feminine
plural altered to plural suffix and Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.17 appears to
have the singular for the first word and the plural for the second; see
also SBN in qaddish where there are a number of noun forms with
plurals apparently ending in waw e.g. ‫לעילא לעילא מכל ברכתו שירותו‬
‫תשבחותו נחמותו וטבאתו‬.

2. EDG 194, 11: End of ‫ישתבח‬: ‫מלך גדול התושבחות אל ההודאות אדון כל‬
‫המעשים הבוחר בשירי זמרה חי עולמים‬. [consistently spelt so: ‫]התושבחות‬.59
So SBN (but not consistently), SRA, T, BL Add.18690, BL Add.27126,
all four Bodleian MSS consulted, and CUL Add. 541; but not RSG, JBY
or A; CUL Add. 1204 has an alteration from ‫ תושבחות‬to ‫תישבחות‬.

3. EDG 194, 12–13: After ‫ישתבח‬: ‫וקורא השירה עד סופה כמנהג‬

So RSG, SBN, T; but [SRA?] JBY, A, BL Add.18690, BL Add. 27126,
BL Or. 5866, all four Bodleian MSS consulted, CUL Add. 541 and
CUL Add. 1204 all have it before.

65–66; English edition, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (trans. and ed. Raymond
P. Scheindlin, Philadelphia, Jerusalem and New York, 1993) (= EE), pp. 73–74; B.S.
Jacobson, Netiv Binah (5 vols; Tel Aviv, 1968–83) (= Jacobson), 1.192–94; N. Wieder,
‘Fourteen New Genizah-Fragments of Saadya’s Siddur together with a Reproduction
of a Missing Part’ in Saadya Studies in Commemoration of the One Thousandth Anniversary
of the Death of R Saadya Gaon, ed. E.I.J. Rosenthal (Manchester, 1943), p. 268 and The
Formation of Jewish Liturgy in the East and the West: A Collection of Essays (Hebrew; 2 vols;
Jerusalem, 1998), 2.507–8.
Baer, pp. 59 and 75; OT, p. 123; EG, pp. 85–86, EH, p. 67, EE, pp. 75–76;
Jacobson, 1.226–28; S.C. Reif, Shabbethai Sofer and his Prayer-book (Cambridge, 1979), pp.
156 and 267–68; C.E. Cohen, ‘Ashkenazic mishnaic reading traditions in eighteenth-
century grammatical treatises’ (Hebrew), Leshonenu 62 (1999), pp. 274–79.
Baer, p. 73; OT, pp. 117–21; EG, p. 86, EH, p. 67, EE, pp. 75–76; Jacobson,
1.218–26; J. Mann, ‘Genizah fragments of the Palestinian order of service,’ HUCA 2
(1925), pp. 281–85, reprinted in Contributions to the Scientific Study of Jewish Liturgy (ed.
J.J. Petuchowski, New York, 1970); E. Fleischer, Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals as
Portrayed in the Geniza Documents (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1988), pp. 275–91; Elbogen, ‘Ritus’
(see n. 1 above), p. 328.
maimonides on the prayers 91

4. EDG 195, 14: ‫המאיר לארץ ולדרין עליה‬.61

So RSG, SBN, T; but SRA, JBY, A, BL Add. 27126, BL Or. 5866, all
four Bodleian MSS consulted, CUL Add. 541 and CUL Add. 1204
all have ‫ולדרים‬.

5. EDG 195, 31: ‫כאמור לעושה אורים גדולים כי לעולם חסדו התקנת‬
‫מאורות לשמח עולם‬.62
So SBN (‫ עולמך‬. . . ‫ )והתקנת‬and T; Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.17 and Bod.
Opp.Add.8vo.18, with third person for second person; but not RSG,
SRA, JBY, A, BL Add. 27126, BL Or. 5866, Bod. Laud.Or.27, Bod.
Can.Or.108, CUL Add. 1204 and Add. 541.

6. EDG 196, 13–15: In the ‫ אמת ויציב‬response, every second word

has conjunctive waw.63
So SBN (for at least the first twelve expressions); but in RSG all have
waw except ‫יציב‬, and waw is attached to all the epithets in SRA, JBY,
T, A, BL Add.18690, BL Add. 27126, BL Or. 5866, all four Bodleian
MSS consulted, CUL Add. 541 and CUL Add. 1204, sometimes with
a note specifying and/or explaining the use of waw in each case.

7. EDG 197–198, 11: The ‫ השכיבנו‬prayer “ends” ‫ברוך שומר עמו‬

‫ ישראל לעד‬and then adds ‫ברוך יי לעולם אמן ואמן ימלוך יי לעולם אמן‬
‫ ברוך אתה יי המולך בכבודו חי וקיים תמיד ימלוך לעולם ועד‬. . . ‫ואמן‬
‫ונהגו מקצת העם להוסיף פסוקין באמצע ברכה זו‬.64
So RSG, SBN and T; but there are two full benedictions in SRA, JBY,
A, BL Add.18690, BL Add. 27126, BL Or.5866, all four Bodleian MSS
consulted; CUL Add. 541 has the word ‫ אמן‬at the end of each.

Baer, p. 76; OT, p. 127; EG, p. 17, EH, p. 13, EE, p. 17; Jacobson, 1.230–31;
Reif, Shabbethai (see n. 59 above), pp. 306–7.
Baer, p. 79; OT, pp. 132–33; EG, pp. 19–20, EH, p. 15, EE, p. 16; Jacobson,
1.235; Wieder, Formation (see n. 58 above), 1:155–57, reprinted from Sinai 76 (1975),
pp. 116–18.
Baer, p. 84; OT, pp. 142–43; EG, p. 22, EH, p. 17, EE, p. 21; Jacobson, 1.254–60;
Reif, Shabbethai (see n. 59 above), p. 211 and Reif, Problems, pp. 271–90.
Baer, pp. 168–69; OT, pp. 272–74; EG, p. 102–4, EH, pp. 78–80, EE, pp. 87–89;
Jacobson, 1.410–14; Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1 above), pp. 323 and 329.
92 stefan c. reif

8. EDG 199, 11: In benediction 7: ‫ראה בענינו וריבה ריבנו ומהר לגאלינו‬.65
So T, BL Add.27126, Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.18, Bod. Laud.Or.27, Bod.
Can.Or.108 and CUL Add. 541; but not in RSG, SRA, SBN, JBY,
A or BL Or.5866, Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.17 and CUL Add. 1204, all of
which prefer ‫וגאלנו מהרה‬.

9. EDG 199, 14: In benediction 9: ‫ברכנו יי אלהינו בכל מעשה ידינו‬.66

So T, BL Or.5866, Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.18, Bod. Laud.Or.27, Bod. Can.
Or.108, CUL Add. 541 and CUL Add. 1204; but RSG, SRA, SBN,
JBY, A, BL Add.18690, BL Add. 27126 and Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.17
prefer ‫ברך עלינו‬.

10. EDG 199, 27: In benediction 14: ‫תשכון בתוך ירושלם עירך כאשר‬
‫דברת ובנה אותה בניין עולם במהרה בימינו‬.67
So JBY, T, A, BL Add.18690, BL Add. 27126, BL Or.5866, all four
Bodleian MSS consulted (in a later hand in Bod. Can.Or.108 and with
an addition about the throne of David in Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.17), CUL
Add. 541 and CUL Add. 1204; but RSG, SRA and SBN have ‫ רחם‬or
‫על ירושלים‬.

11. EDG 200, 14–15: In benediction 19: ‫וברכנו כולנו )כאחד( ממאור‬
‫פניך כי ממאור פניך נתתה לנו יי אלהינו תורה וחיים אהבה וחסד צדקה‬
‫ושלום וטוב בעיניך לברך את עמך ישראל ]בכל עת[ בשלום‬.68
So (apparently) SBN and T; RSG has ‫ במאור‬and then ‫ ;ממאור‬JBY
has ‫ באור‬and then ‫ ;במאור‬but SRA, A, BL Or.5866, Bod. Laud.Or.27,
Bod. Can.Or.108 (in a later hand), and CUL Add. 541 have ‫ באור‬twice.
BL Add.18690, BL Add. 27126, Bod. Opp.Add.8vo.17 and Bod. Opp.
Add.8vo.18 have more substantially different versions.

Baer, p. 91; OT, p. 164; EG, p. 48, EH, p. 37, EE, pp. 42–43; Jacobson, 1.279;
Y. Luger, The Weekday Amidah in the Cairo Genizah [Hebrew] ( Jerusalem, 2001), pp.
Baer, p. 92; OT, pp. 166–67; EG, pp. 49–50, EH, pp. 38–39, EE, p. 44; Jacobson,
1.280–81; Luger, Amidah (see n. 65 above), pp. 103–13.
Baer, p. 96; OT, p. 170; EG, pp. 52–54, EH, pp. 41–42, EE, pp. 47–48; Jacobson,
1.285–86; Luger, Amidah (see n. 65 above), pp. 150–58.
Baer, p. 103; OT, pp. 181–82; EG, p. 59, EH, p. 46, EE, p. 53; Jacobson, 1.296–99;
Luger, Amidah (see n. 65 above), pp. 196–208.
‫‪maimonides on the prayers‬‬ ‫‪93‬‬

‫רחם יי אלהינו ‪12. EDG 201, 17: In 14th benediction for Tisha BeAv:‬‬
‫‪.69‬עלינו ועל ישראל עמך ‪ . . .‬ברוך אתה יי בונה ירושלים‬
‫‪So RSG, SRA, SBN, JBY (both!), T and CUL Add. 1204; but A, BL‬‬
‫‪Add.18690, BL Or.5866 and all four Bodleian MSS consulted have‬‬

‫שליח צבור מברך לעולם ברכה שלישית ‪13. EDG 202, 16–25: Qedushah:‬‬
‫בנוסח זה‪ .‬נקדישך ונעריצך ונשלש לך קדושה משולשת כדבר האמור על‬
‫ידי נביאך וקרא זה אל זה ואמר קדוש קדוש קדוש יי צבאות מלוא כל‬
‫הארץ כבודו כבודו וגדלו מלא עולם ומשרתיו שואלים איה מקום כבודו‬
‫משבחים ואומרים ברוך כבוד יי ממקומו ממקומך מלכינו תופיע ותמלוך‬
‫עלינו כי מחכים אנו לך מתי תמלוך בציון בחיינו ובימינו תשכון תתגדל‬
‫ותתקדש בתוך ירושלם עירך לדור ודור ולנצח נצחים ועינינו תראינה‬
‫במלכות עוזך כדבר האמור בשירי קדשך על ידי דוד משיח צדקך ימלוך‬
‫יי לעלם אלהיך ציון לדור ודור ]הללויה[ לדור ודור נגיד גדלך ולנצח נצחים‬
‫קדושתך נקדיש ושבחך אלהינו מפינו לא ימוש )לעולם ועד( כי אל מלך‬
‫‪.70‬גדול וקדוש אתה ברוך א‘ יי האל הקדוש‬
‫‪), T, SBN (minor variants) but others‬אז ברעש גדול ‪So RSG (with‬‬
‫‪(including many manuscripts) vary or are more complex. The battle‬‬
‫‪for one simple qedushah on all occasions was undoubtedly in the process‬‬
‫‪of being lost by this time.‬‬

‫‪14. EDG 205, 12–15: In the musaf prayer there is no specific mention of‬‬
‫‪the detailed biblically ordained sacrifices, the shabbat musaf including:‬‬
‫ושם נעשה לפניך את קרבנות חובותינו תמידי‘ כסדרן ומוספין כהלכתן‬
‫]ו[את מוספי יום המנוח הזה נעשה ונקריב לפניך באהבה כמצות רצונך‬
‫כמה שכתבת עלינו בתורתיך על‪-‬ידי משה עבדך לא נתתו מלכינו לגויי‬
‫הארצות ולא הנחלתו מלכינו לעובדי פסילים ]גם[ במנוחתו לא ישכנו‬
‫ערלים לבית ישראל נתתו זרע ישורון אשר בם בחרת חמדת ימים אותו‬
‫‪.71‬קראת או“א רצה נא וכו‘‬

‫‪Baer, p. 96; OT, p. 171; EG, pp. 53, 129 and 181, EH, pp. 42, 97 and 136, EE,‬‬
‫התפילה בתקופת ‪pp. 48, 107–8 and 147; Jacobson, 1.327; see also J. Heinemann,‬‬
‫‪ ( Jerusalem2, 1966), pp. 35–40 and 48–51; English‬התנאים והאמוראים‪ :‬טיבה ודפוסיה‬
‫‪edition, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns (Berlin and New York, 1977), pp. 48–56,‬‬
‫‪70–76 and 288–91; and Reif, Problems (see n. 63 above), 143–64.‬‬
‫‪Baer, pp. 89–90 and 218; OT, pp. 159–60 and 337–38; EG, pp. 61–67, EH, pp.‬‬
‫‪47–54, EE, pp. 54–62; Jacobson, 1.307–10 and 2.205–6; Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1‬‬
‫‪above), p. 324.‬‬
‫‪Baer, pp. 239, 334, 352–53, 397 and 425; OT, pp. 363–64, 451, 462, 526 and‬‬
‫‪567; EG, pp. 117, 126, 136 and 145, EH, pp. 89, 95, 102 and 110, EE, pp. 98, 106,‬‬
94 stefan c. reif

So T and A; but RSG, SRA, SBN have the verses while there is
discussion, or variation between musafim, in JBY, BL Add.18690, BL
Or.5866, all four Bodleian MSS consulted, CUL Add. 541 and CUL
Add. 1204.

15. EDG 214, 3–6: Re specific mention of sacrificial details ordained in

Torah: ‫נהגו העם בכל תפלות המוספין כשהוא אומר כמו שכתבתה עלינו‬
‫בתורתך על ידי משה עבדך מזכיר קרבנות אותו היום כמו שהן כתובין‬
‫בתורה וקורא אותן הפסוקים ואם לא הזכיר כיון שאמר כמו שכתבתה‬
‫עלינו בתורתך שוב אינו צריך‬.

16. EDG 208, 11–12: In the musaf prayer for festivals: ‫והשב ישראל‬
‫לנויהו כהנים לעבודתם ולויים לדוכנן וישראל למעמדן וארמון על משפטו‬
‫ישב ושם נעלה‬.72
So T and SBN (‫ )ולוים לשירה ולזמרה וארמון‬with close similarities in
RSG (+ the variants); but not SRA, A, the British Library and Bodleian
MSS consulted, or CUL Add. 541.

17. EDG 203, 3–9: Re qaddish: ‫שליח צבור אומר קדיש לעולם קודם‬
‫כל תפלה ואחר כל תפלה ואחר שאמר סדר היום בכל עת שיאמר סדר‬
‫היום יתחנן מעט ויאמר קדיש וכישלים לקרות בתורה ובכל עת שיתחנן‬
‫ יתגדל ויתקדש‬:‫ נוסח הקדיש‬.‫בדברי תחנונים כשיגמור תחנוניו יאמר קדיש‬
‫שמיה רבה בעלמא דיברא כרעותיה וימלך מלכותיה ויצמח פורקניה‬
.(‫ויקרב משיחיה ויפרוק עמיה בחייכון וביומיכון ובחייהון )וביומיהון‬
[‫ סדר היום‬is the ‫]קדושה דסידרא‬.73
So (similarly) T, SBN and CUL Add. 541; but not RSG, SRA, JBY,
A, the Bodleian MSS consulted (with the possible exception of Bod.
Opp.Add.8vo.18?), the British Library MSS consulted, or CUL Add.

114 and 122; Jacobson, 4:14–48; Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1 above), p. 325; see also the
section ‘Early Musaf Prayer’ in Reif, Problems (see n. 63 above), pp. 174–75.
Baer, p. 355; OT, p. 464; Jacobson, 4.45; see also Reif, Problems (see n. 63 above),
pp. 157–58.
Baer, pp. 129–31; OT, pp. 82–83; EG, pp. 92–98, EH, pp. 72–75, EE, pp. 80–84;
Jacobson, 1.365–73; Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1 above), p. 329. See also D. De Sola Pool,
The Kaddish (Leipzig, 1909) and A. Lehnardt, Qaddish: Untersuchungen zur Enstehung und
Rezeption eines rabbinischen Gebetes (Tübingen, 2002).
maimonides on the prayers 95

18. EDG 208, 17–19: ‫וכנוסח הזה ]של פסח[ הוא מתפלל בחג השבועות‬
‫ובחג הסכות בלא חסרון בלא יתר אלא שבחג השבועות הוא אומר את‬
‫יום טוב מקרא ק‘ הזה את יום חג השבועות הזה זמן מתן תורתינו באהבה‬
‫ וכן בשמיני עצרת‬. . . ‫ וכן בחג הסוכות‬. . . ‘‫ זכר ליציא‘ מצ‬.

19. EDG 215, 27–216, 3: In grace after meals: ‫וטובו הגדול לא חסר לנו ואל‬
‫יחסר לנו לעולם ועד כי הוא זן ומפרנס לכל כאמור פותח את ידיך ומשביע‬
‫ נודה‬.‫לכל חי רצון ומכין מזון לכל בריותיו אשר ברא ב“א יי הזן את הכל‬
‫לך יי אלהינו ונברך מלכינו כי הנחלת)נו והנחלת( את אבותינו ארץ חמדה‬
‫ ומזון( ועל שהוצאתנו מארץ מצרים‬. . . . ‫טובה ורחבה ברית ותורה )חיים‬
‫ ופדיתנו מבית עבדים על תורתך שלמדתנו על חוקי רצונך שהודעתנו‬74

20. EDG 26, 9–10: grace: ‫הטוב והמטיב )אשר( ]ש[בכל יום וים )הוא‬
‫מטיב עמנו( הוא גומלנו חן וחסד ורחמים וכל טוב‬
So T, with close similarities in JBY and A, and some in SBN, but
not in RSG, SRA or SBN or any of the Bodleian MSS consulted.
BL Or. 5866 has some readings that are similar to the latter part of
the first benediction but not to the section cited here from the fourth


1. Tensions: Theological tensions are regularly encountered in the

various aspects of Maimonides’s liturgical work. Among the main
clashes that stand out are those between the spiritual ideal and the
reality of life, between the maximalist demand for elitism and the need
for popular guidance and support, and between the championing of
individual intensity and the trend towards communal standardization.
Other competitive trends include the practical halakhah vis-à-vis the
historical interpretation, the congregational setting versus the domestic
location, and the individual’s inherited tradition as against the local
community’s custom.

2. Innovation: The relevant sources reveal instances in the field of

liturgical decision-making in which Maimonides expresses brave, radical

Baer, pp. 554–59; OT, pp. 239–43; Jacobson, 3.55–66; see also Reif, Problems (see
n. 63 above), pp. 333–48.
96 stefan c. reif

and novel ideas that do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the post-
talmudic authorities or the established customs of these who adhere to
their rulings. He opts for the non-repetition of the amidah for musaf,
argues the need for brevity and the avoidance of congregational bore-
dom and loss of concentration, and sometimes demonstrates a moderate
tendency that avoids imposing strictness on the community. He distin-
guishes what should be said in the synagogue from what should more
correctly be recited at home and displays an awareness that different
geographical circumstances may justifiably lead to variety of practice.
He is concerned to maintain an association between physical and spiri-
tual purity and to promote its relevance to the liturgical sphere.

3. Traditionalism: Maimonides is strongly committed to the con-

tinued application of talmudic principles75 and rulings and to a basic
adherence to the formative Iraqi or Babylonian (but not necessarily
Sa{adyanic) rite, rather than that of the land of Israel. There is in his
work an anxiety to maintain the religiosity of prayer and a reluctance
to abandon well-established phraseology. He respectfully takes note of
customs, even when they are numerous and varied, but is careful to
distinguish between what is halakhically required and what is an optional
custom, sometimes adopting what appeals to him and at other times
choosing not to codify what he regards as merely customary.

4. Form and Content: Maimonides appears to be content with the

use of Rabbinic Hebrew (MH) and Aramaic in the prayers and is not
among those who wish to “correct” the Hebrew style in accordance
with the language and grammar of the masoretic Bible. It is impor-
tant for the worshipper to adhere to a theme within each section and
not to lose sight of that theme because of expansions and diversions.
Successful prayer requires suitable and adequate preparations, physi-
cal as well as spiritual, congregational as well as individual. He has no
problem with the inclusion of biblical verses but does not propose an
extension of the practice, just as he is impatient with too much vari-
ety and essentially prefers to adhere to the skeletal liturgical format,
rather than opting for a highly specific version. The issue of precision
is applied by him to spiritual aims rather than to textual options. He
expresses objection to superstition and magic and demonstrates a clear

See Elbogen, ‘Ritus’ (see n. 1 above), p. 325.
maimonides on the prayers 97

propensity towards the logical and the systematic and the concretization
of abstract principles.

5. Place among Rites: His preferred liturgical text is akin to earlier

rather than later Sefaradi traditions (which came under the heavy influ-
ence of the Zohar and the kabbalists). It appears to belong to North
African and Egyptian circles although the possibility should not be ruled
out that the liturgical practices of such circles might have been identical
with at least part of the earlier Sefaradi tradition. It may well be that he
adhered to a Sefaradi minhag at home and that what he is formally and
authoritatively offering to the Jewish public is an Egyptian rite. Whatever
its provenance, his formal rite stands on the crossroads at which the
highway of Babylonian centralization splits up into more minor roads
leading to independent geographical units, all with their own adjust-
ments, rationalizations and standardizations. He is a broad supporter
of the liturgical preferences of the geonic authorities but an approach
that incorporates a more strongly localized interpretation, manifesta-
tion and adjustment of those preferences is still clearly in the future.

6. Success: Unless we are to assume (without any evidence or rationale)

that Maimonides adopted a pre-existent Yemenite rite in his halakhic
work, it seems highly likely that he had the most influence on Yemen
(baladi not shami ), a conclusion that matches the other historical evi-
dence about his impact on that community. His influence elsewhere
was more limited because of controversies about his works, the lack
of a widespread prayer-book version associated with his name (such as
those of the geonic leaders Amram and Sa{adya), and the substantial
inroads made by the mystics into the liturgical field. What also perhaps
played a part was his son Abraham’s reputation as a mystic rather than
a continuator of his father’s liturgical traditions, and it should not be
forgotten that in the subsequent period the centres of Jewish religious
leadership moved from Egypt, Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia
to Spain, Franco-Gemany and Italy.

Overall Conclusion

Maimonides’s liturgical work reveals a number of tensions about theo-

logical priorities and preferences. He was capable of innovation where
the circumstances demanded it but was broadly committed to the
98 stefan c. reif

continued application of talmudic principles, while remaining aware of

the distinction between legal requirement and customary practice. What
is uncovered in his comments is a contentment with basic Hebrew liturgy
and a preference for intense preparation over unnecessary expansion,
especially of the mystical variety. His preferred liturgy appears to be
Egyptian/North African and to stand between the centralized Babylo-
nian rite and the variegated traditions which flowed from it. It made a
major impact only on the Yemenite rite and appears to have lost much
of its influence in the increasingly powerful centres of Europe.


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pp. 3–30.
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und Sein Einfluss, eds W. Bacher, M. Brann, D. Simonsen and J. Guttmann, vol. 1
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——, Der jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Frankfurt-am-Main,
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in light of the Geniza documents’ in Hommage à Georges Vajda, eds G. Nahon and
C. Touati (Louvain, 1980), pp. 155–67.
——, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (Princeton, 1973).
maimonides on the prayers 99

Goldschmidt, E.D. (ed.), ‘The Oxford MS of Maimonides’ Book of Prayer’, Studies of

the Research Institute for Hebrew Poetry in Jerusalem 7 (1958), pp. 183–213, reprinted in
his collection of articles On Jewish Liturgy. Essays on Prayer and Religious Poetry [Hebrew]
( Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 187–216.
Heinemann, J., Ha-Tefillah Bi-Tequfat Ha-Tanna im Ve-Ha-Amora im ( Jerusalem, second
edition, 1966); [English edition] Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns (Berlin and
New York, 1977).
Jacobson, B.S., Netiv Binah, 5 vols (Tel Aviv, 1968–83).
Judah ben Yaqar, Peyrush Ha-Tefillot Ve-Ha-Berakhot, ed. S. Yerushalmi, 2 vols ( Jerusalem,
Kraemer, J.L., ‘Six unpublished Maimonides letters from the Cairo Genizah’, Maimo-
nidean Studies 2 (1991), pp. 73–80.
——,‘Four Geniza letters concerning Maimonides’ in Mas at Moshe: Studies in Jewish
and Islamic Culture Presented to Moshe Gil, eds E. Fleischer, M.A. Friedman and J.L.
Kraemer [Hebrew] ( Jerusalem, 1998), pp. 381–400.
Lehnardt, A. Qaddish: Untersuchungen zur Entstehung und Rezeption eines rabbinischen Gebetes
(Tübingen, 2002).
Lichtenstein, Y.S., ‘The Rambam’s approach regarding prayer, holy objects and visiting
the cemetery’, HUCA 72 (2001), Hebrew section, pp. 1–34.
Luger, Y., The Weekday Amidah in the Cairo Genizah [Hebrew] ( Jerusalem, 2001).
Madmoni, Z., ‘Ha-Rambam Ve-Nusa˜ Ha-Tefillah Shel Yehudey Teman’ in Yahadut
Teman: Pirqey Me qar Ve- Iyyun, eds I. Yeshayahu and J. Tobi ( Jerusalem, 1976), pp.
Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah, ed. J. Qafi˜, Seder Mo ed ( Jerusalem, 1963).
——, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago and London, 1963; second
edition, 1969).
——, Letters and Essays of Moses Maimonides, ed. I. Shilat [Hebrew] (Maaleh Adumim,
——, Mishneh Torah, ed. N.L. Rabinovitch ( Jerusalem, 1984).
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and New York, 1988).
——, Mishneh Torah. Hilchot Tefilah [II] and Birkat Kohanim. The Laws of Prayer and the
Priestly Blessing, ed. E. Touger ( Jerusalem and New York, 1989).
——, Moreh Nevukhim, trans. M. Schwarz (Tel-Aviv, 2002).
——, Responsa, ed. J. Blau, 4 vols ( Jerusalem, 1957–61 and 1986).
Mann, J., ‘Genizah fragments of the Palestinian order of service’, HUCA 2 (1925),
pp. 281–85, reprinted in Contributions to the Scientific Study of Jewish Liturgy, ed. J.J.
Petuchowski (New York, 1970).
Margoliouth, G., Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the British Museum,
vol. 1 (London, 1905).
Massekhet Soferim, ed. M. Higger (New York, 1937).
Neubauer, A., Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, vol. 1 (Oxford,
Rabbi Abraham ben Moshe ben Maimon [see Abraham Maimuni above], Sefer Ha-
Maspik Le Ovdey Hashem, pt. 2, vol. 2, ed. Nissim Dana (Ramat-Gan, 1989).
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1943), p. 268.
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2 vols ( Jerusalem, 1998).



Paul B. Fenton

It is generally considered that with the thought of Moses Maimonides,

Jewish philosophy in the mediaeval period reached its apex, after
which all was but commentary. Though it is true that his masterful
figure overshadowed all subsequent writings, it would be erroneous to
conclude that the whole of Jewish intellectual creativity had henceforth
ground to a halt, blinded by the sheer luminance of the “Great Eagle’s”
genius. On the contrary, immediately after his demise and within his
own precincts, an important intellectual and spiritual movement was
set in motion involving, moreover, Maimonides’ direct descendants:
Abraham (1186–1237), Obadyah (1228–1265), as well as the last of the
Maimonideans known to us, David II b. Joshua (circa 1335–1415).
Foremost among them was Maimonides’ only son Abraham, a sig-
nificant portion of whose literary activity was devoted to the elucidation
of his illustrious father’s doctrine, but not, however, in its philosophi-
cal implications. Indeed, distancing himself from purely philosophical
issues, Abraham chose as his main pursuit the mystical path, in keep-
ing with the transformations having taken place in the contemporary
intellectual mood in his native Egypt. Philosophic inquiry was on the
decline in the Muslim world, hastened, in the immediate case of Egypt,
by the considerable extension of Sufism with its suspicion of science
and philosophy. Though it was through the prism of a Jewish brand
of Sufi pietism that Abraham Maimonides read his father’s legacy, the
question that nonetheless begs itself is what measure of faithfulness to
Maimonides’ original doctrine can be found in this reading? Were its
seeds already virtually present in Maimonides’ system? Does Abraham’s
own system throw any light on obscure points in Maimonides’ thought,
reflecting, perhaps, a family tradition? On the other hand, where their
opinions significantly differ, what were the factors that brought about
this conscious or unconscious mutation? Such an enquiry is of signal
interest for Jewish intellectual and religious history in the Islamic East,
where Maimonides’ descendants were considered the spiritual and
temporal spokesmen of their times.
104 paul b. fenton

Rabbi Abraham was born in July 1186 when his father was already
47 years of age.1 Despite this significant age-gap, Maimonides drew his
son close to him and would have him attend his court from a tender
age, no doubt in order to groom him in the intricacies of a function
which he was to inherit as Maimonides’ only heir.2
As Maimonides himself writes in a letter bristling with paternal pride
addressed to Joseph ben Judah in 1191, his son was endowed from his
earliest youth with exceptional intellectual and ethical qualities:
However, of my preoccupation with worldly matters I have no consola-
tion save two things: my moments of study, and my son Abraham upon
whom God has bestowed grace and blessing worthy of the benediction
of him whose name he bears (i.e. the patriarch Abraham) . . . for he is the
meekest of mankind, in addition to his goodly manners. Moreover he is
endowed with a keen mind and a pleasant nature. With God’s assistance
he will undoubtedly gain fame amongst the great.3
Given that Abraham was born in 1186, he must only have been a mere
six years old at that time.
Following the demise of his father in 1204, Abraham was appointed
ra îs al-yahûd, head of Egyptian Jewry, at the tender age of eighteen.
Probably because of his youth, it was not until 1213 that the honorific
title of nagîd was conferred upon him. He was the first of his family to
occupy this office, which henceforth remained in his descendants’ hands
for nearly two centuries. A student of medicine like his father, Abraham
was court physician to the Ayyubid al-Malik al-Kâmil (ob. 1238). His
contemporary, the historian of Arabic medicine, Ibn Abî Usaybî‘a
describes him as “a celebrated physician . . . of tall stature, thin, and of
pleasant conversation . . . outstanding in the practice of medicine”.4

On Abraham Maimonides, see P. Fenton, “Abraham Maimonides: founding a
Mystical Dynasty”, in: M. Idel (ed.), Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th
Century, New York, 1998, pp. 127–154. According to a wedding poem in honor of
R. Abraham, published by N. Allony, Sinai 55 (1964), p. 249, Maimonides, despairing
of begetting a son, had fasted and prayed to have one.
See our article “A Meeting with Maimonides”, BSOAS 45 (1982), pp. 1–4.
Maimonides, Epistola, ed. D. Baneth, Jerusalem, 1946, pp. 59–69. The editor
ascribes a later date to the epistle which was written in his opinion between 1198
and 1204.
Ibn Abî Usaybî‘a, Tabaqât al-atibbâ , Leipzig-Cairo, vol. II, 1884, p. 111. It is
noteworthy that the Andalusian druggist Ibn Baytar (ob. 1248), was also employed in
al-Kâmil’s service as head pharmacist. The unique surviving manuscript of Maimo-
nides’ Explanation of the Names of Drugs, preserved in Istanbul (Aya Sofia ms. 3711), is
written in Ibn Baytar’s hand. It is not impossible that he obtained the text from his
colleague, Abraham Maimonides.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 105

As befitted a Maimonidean scion, the Nagîd proved himself not only

as a gifted communal leader, but also as an independent thinker, author
of a varied literary output, which also bore the stamp of originality
and genius. Had it not been for the celebrity of his father’s writings, his
compositions would certainly have left a deeper mark on the destinies
of the Jewish heritage.
Abraham stood at the head of a pietistic and ascetic movement in
whose spirit he composed a number of works. Besides their intrinsic
literary and historical significance, in addition these writings hold a
special importance as a “reflection” of his father’s teachings, much in
the same way that Hasidic writings of a later generation of a specific
dynasty often elucidate the words of their predecessors.
A significant portion of these writings was devoted to the defence of
his father’s doctrines against their halakhic and ideological antagonists,
a fact that contributed to the consolidation of Abraham’s own authority.
In his Beth Midrash he taught his father’s Mishneh Torah—apparently
the first to do so—undoubtedly in an effort to turn the code into a focal
point of all halakhic endeavour, as his father had wished.5 Though from
several appearances, Abraham conducted himself—and indeed was
considered—the continuator and interpreter of his father’s works, he
intended to imprint upon his flock the stamp of his own genius.
When Moses ben Samuel Ibn Tibbon of Lunel sought to obtain an
authoritative copy of the Arabic original of the Book of Commandments
in order to translate it into Hebrew, he turned to Abraham in far-off
Egypt who “sent the book through his kindness and on account of his
faithfulness to former affection”.6
Though Abraham repeatedly emphasized that he lived according
to the ethical principles set out by his father, he developed a complete
religious theosophy of his own, which diverged quite appreciably from
that of his forbear. Taking advantage of his political position as Nagîd,
he attempted to breathe into the soul of Eastern Jewry a new spirit by
propagating a form of pietism whose ethical concepts and devotional
rituals were influenced in a great measure by the extraordinary flower-
ing of Sufism in contemporary Egypt.

A testimony of this is given by a member of his Beth Midrash. See A. Halkin,
Senegoriyâh al sefer mishneh tôrâh, Tarbiz 25 (1956), p. 418. Cf. also Fenton, REJ 145
(1986), pp. 289–293.
Moses Ibn Tibbon, Introduction to his translation of Sefer ha-miswôt, ed. A. Jellinek,
Quntres Taryag, Vienna, 1878, p. 32.
106 paul b. fenton

There is no doubt that Maimonides’ writings overshadowed the gleam

of his son’s compositions, which, according to his own testimony he
began after his father’s death. This shadow also decreed upon them
centuries’ long oblivion in the forgotten corners of the world’s librar-
ies. As proof, it will be recalled that while his father’s Mishneh Tôrâh
had already been printed on Hispanic soil prior to 1480, it was only in
1836 that a minute part of Abraham’s principal work Kifâya first saw
the light of day, in a Hebrew translation.7 Of the fruits of his quill,
it was preceded by his Milhemet ha-shem, published in Vilnius in 1821,8
no doubt revived on account of its importance for the history of the
Maimonidean controversy, for which the Science of Judaism, from its
very inception, had shown a keen interest. It is no coincidence that,
of all the Nagîd’s writings, it is precisely this work of which the largest
number of manuscripts has been preserved. Singularly directed against
the arguments of the Rabbis of France, Abraham refutes therein the
criticisms which were leveled at his father’s theological premises, and
forcefully defends Maimonides’ spiritual conceptions of the delights in
the Hereafter as well as his refusal of anthropomorphism.
In this category are to be included his responses to Daniel Ibn al-
Mâshita’s criticisms of the Code, and the Book of Precepts, published shortly
afterwards by B. Goldberg, which defend his father’s positions.9
When Moses Maimonides was re-elected ra îs al-yahûd, an enthusi-
astic disciple sent him a letter of congratulations in which he stated
that although the community had gained a great man, science had
lost a great man. As with the father so too with the son, for his preoc-
cupations with pastoral duties as ra îs al-yahûd left him little time for
literary pursuits. Moreover, in contrast to his father who had only
occupied the position for short periods, Abraham held office for over
thirty years, until his death in December 1237. The vast quantity of
letters to or from him, preserved in the genizah, bear witness to the
social and communal problems to which he had to tend. They reflect

We refer to the section on the Interpretation of the Midrash (Ma amar al ’ôdôt derâshôt
Hazal ), published by Samuel Goldenberg, Kerem Hemed 3 (1836), pp. 6–18, on the basis of
a manuscript from the Oppenheimer collection, which was still in Hamburg at the time
but later became Oxford, Bodleian Heb. Ms. Opp. 585.4. Cf. A. Neubauer, Catalogue of
the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, vol. 1, 1886, col. 576, no 1649.
Other editions are: Milhemet ha-shem, Hannover, 1840, and ed. R. Margaliot,
Jerusalem, 1953. An English translation was produced by F. Rosner, Wars of the Lord,
Haifa, 2000. A useful bibliography of Abraham’s polemical writings by Dienstag is to
be found at the end of the latter, pp. 140–153.
Birkhat Abraham, Lyck 1859 and Ma aseh Nissim, Paris, 1867.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 107

tedious, time-consuming and often trivial affairs, such as dealing with

the deprived and underprivileged. On the other hand, his numerous
responsa dealt with theological and exegetical matters as well as com-
plicated halakhic problems often connected with his father’s rulings.
A thread of modesty and humanity pervades these documents, which
reflect his pietistic personality no less than the authority and decisive-
ness of a communal head. Despite these duties, Abraham managed to
produce a wide literary output comprising a) polemics b) responsa and
halâkhâh c) exegesis d) ethics and theology.
Since the first survey of his writings, published by M. Steinschneider
in 1901,10 our knowledge of him and the whole Maimonidean dynasty
in their social, cultural and spiritual environment, has been greatly
enriched by numerous editions and publications uncovered in the
Cairo genizah.
The historian has at his disposal an autobiographical document relat-
ing to his writings—a unique letter from the year 1232, which apparently
also originated from the genizah. In a style reminiscent of his father’s
famous epistle to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Abraham, who at the time of
writing was 54 years old and had been serving as nagîd for almost 30
years, informs his correspondent of the various compositions he had
completed and those in which he was still engrossed, or intended to
write. Of those that have reached us, they have done so in fragmentary
form, such that it is doubtful whether some were ever completed.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Pococke 186 (Neubauer 1315), fols.

Text of a writ written by Abraham, son of our master Moses, the great
master, son of our master Maimun . . .
And the compositions which I began after the decease of my father
and teacher, the memory of the righteous be blessed, (namely) a detailed
commentary on the Talmud and a book explaining the principles of the
Hibbûr, I have not yet had leisure to complete [them]. But (as for) one
composition (which) I have composed in the tongue of Kedar and Ish-
mael and built on the foundations of fear and love (of God) and called
“that which suffices for the servants of the Lord”, the Lord has helped
me to complete its composition, and I have revised and copied most of
it and part of it has been broadcasted to distant countries. And (as for)

M. Steinschneider, “Zur Literatur der Maimoniden”, MGWJ 45 (1901), pp.
126–137; idem, Die arabische Literatur der Juden, Frankfurt a. M., 1902, §159.
108 paul b. fenton

the commentary on the Torah of which thou hast heard, it is true that
I have begun it, and were I free from the service of the king and other
tasks, I would have completed it in a year or two. However I can only
write on it in short hours on days far apart for I have not yet finished
revising the first composition of which I have said (that) most of it is
complete and finished and (that) the smaller part of it that is left will
soon be finished with the help of Heaven. And on this account I have
explained in the commentary on the Torah which I have composed only
close to half the book of Genesis, but I am occupied with it (now) and
when I have completed the revision of (my) composition of which the
greater part is (already) complete, I shall endeavor with all my might to
complete the commentary on the Torah and also a commentary on the
Prophets and the Hagiographa after it, if they will aid me from heaven.
But “the work is long” and the day and the workers are as Rabbi Tryphon
described (Abôth 2: 15), and “there are many thoughts in a man’s heart
but the counsel of the Lord that shall stand” (Prov. 19: 21). And if the
commentary on the (separate) portions (of the Torah) had been copied and
revised I would have sent it; but it still requires reviewing, and revising as
regards its contents, and copying as far as its writing down is concerned,
which cannot take place until I have completed the commentary on one
of the five books of the Torah. And perhaps that will not be long with
the help of the Terrible and Fearful One, so that I may send it to thee if
some accident or mishap do not prevent me, for I know not what a day
may bear or an hour or a moment, and if thy dear letters will reach me
anew every morning also my letters will reach thee. “Now peace unto
thee and peace unto thy house and peace unto all that belongs to thee”
(I Sam. 25:6) and may thy peace be increased and become greater and
continue and not cease and may the will (of God) be thus, (year) 1543
Sel. May salvation be near.11
As already noticed, many of his exegetical compositions were linked
to his father’s works:

1) Commentary on the principles of the hibbûr, which, except for a fragment

from the introduction,12 has not survived, was apparently a com-
mentary on the Mishneh Tôrâh. Abraham quotes from it in his reply

Cf. A. Neubauer, Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, vol. I,
Oxford, 1886, p. 364, col. 463, no 1315; M. Beit-Aryé and R. May, Catalogue of Hebrew
Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Addenda, Oxford, 1994, pp. 217–218. The letter was
first published by A. Neubauer, Israelitische Letterbode 3 (1877), pp. 51–54, and later by
S. Rosenblatt, High Ways to Perfection, I, New York, 1927, pp. 124–126. Perhaps, like the
preceding item in this entry, this letter may have been addressed by Abraham Maimo-
nides to Isaac b. Israel Ibn Shuwaykh, Gaon of Baghdad in the years 1221–47.
JTS, ms. ENA 2379, which is an autograph.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 109

to Daniel Ibn al-Mâshita, stating that he was at that time engaged

in its composition.13
2) It is also possible to view his main work, the Kifâya, as a sort of com-
mentary on the Mishneh Tôrâh, for its very structure is quite similar
to the latter. It is noteworthy that Abraham devoted a chapter to the
explanations of rabbinical legends, a topic with which Maimonides
had desired to deal but which he did not achieve.
3) Commentary on the Pentateuch. His father had had the unfulfilled wish
to compose a full commentary on the Pentateuch, which, no doubt,
Abraham had hoped to achieve.


Mention has already been made of his Milhemet ha-shem, in which the
Nagîd forcefully defends Maimonides’ spiritual conceptions, as well as
his responses to Daniel Ibn al-Mâshita’s criticisms of the Code and the
Book of Precepts.
Much space too is devoted in his Kifâya to the defence of his
father’s halakhic rulings. On the one hand, he testifies that a number
of Maimonides’ liturgical reforms had been accepted “because at that
time there had been no stubbornness nor jealousy among them, and
the unlearned and bad leaders did not draw near to decide the law as
is the wont of certain dissenters in our generation who have attacked
the great advantageous measures, recommendations and obligations
which we have proposed”.14
On the other hand, he states that the attacks by his father’s opponents
had “reduced him to silence” in connection with certain changes he
himself desired to introduce.15
Thus Abraham’s polemical writings include responsa, pamphlets in
defence of his pietistic ideals which had come under attack from the
conservative camp within the Egyptian community. It is noteworthy
in this connection that in his Treatise in defence of the pietistic way, he

Birkat Abraham, p. 15.
Kitâb kifâyat al-‘âbidîn, ed. N. Dana, Ramat-Gan, 1989, p. 196.
Ibid., p. 180. However, it must be said that Abraham’s reforms were more far-
reaching than those of his father, whose weighty halakhic authority, he, moreover,
110 paul b. fenton

overtly attacked the narrow-minded religious judges and communal

leaders who accused the pietists of negligence and impropriety in the
performance of the religious precepts.16
A full account of Abraham’s rôle as a defender of his father’s halakhic
and theological writings would require a study on its own. Suffice it to
illustrate the moving filial dedication in which he carried out this aspect
of his activity by quoting the remarkable vision he had of his father,
who comes from beyond the grave to admonish him for not taking up
his defence, as set out in the introduction to his response to Daniel Ibn
al-Mâshita’s strictures on the Mishneh Torâh. Here is a stirring expression
of Abraham’s attachment to his father’s teachings:
The master17 trembled in a vision while the son sought to ignore that
vision.18 “My son wherefore art thou idle? Art thou not the vindicator of
the day? For the slanderers have increased and strangers have entered our
inheritance, and whosoever opens wide his mouth, as though there were
none to oppose him. How can thy heart bear this and why, my son, dost
thou keep silence like one stunned? Why dost thou not stand up like a
roaring lion and combat in defence of thy fathers in order to deliver thy
portion from the hands of strangers?” Thereupon I replied: “Alas father,
wouldst thou put an end to the remainder of my time, half of which
is taken up by my service to the nations of the land,19 and the other is
dominated by the administration of the Lord’s vineyard?20 The little that
is left is devoted to [the study of ] books and the writing of treatises and
commentaries which I have begun to expound. If thou then consignest
me to this mission, when shall I provide for mine own house also?”
(Gen. 30: 30). And he replied: “This day is one of admonition and
rebuke (Is. 37: 3). Hearken to me and take counsel. Preserve that which
I have given thee in inheritance, and thereafter widen thy boundary. For
these places and similar matters I have left to you room to excel. Open
thy mouth and may thy words shine forth. Set aright the words of thy
father and teacher that they may know that we have a vindicator and
that ‘Israel is not widowed’ ( Jer. 51: 5)”. And so I replied “I shall do as
thou hast advised and trust in God’s kindness!”21

See S.D. Goitein, “Treatise in defence of the Pietists by Abraham Maimonides”,
JJS 16 (1965), pp. 105–114.
i.e. Maimonides.
Cf. Prov. 3: 21.
A reference to Abraham’s professional activities as royal physician.
I.e. his communal duties as nagîd.
Birkat Abraham, p. 3.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 111


Thus at this time, a few years before his demise, Abraham had begun
composing commentaries, both on the Talmud and the Mishneh Tôrâh.
Unfortunately, these have not come down to us. He had even com-
menced a commentary on the Pentateuch in the Arabic language of
which he had completed the part on Genesis, and planned to write
commentaries on the Prophets and Hagiographa. Whereas, hitherto, no
trace has been found of the existence of the latter, his commentary on
Genesis and part of Exodus has been preserved in a unique manuscript
which has been published.22
As already expressed, Abraham had probably cherished the hope
of realizing in a more popular strain his father’s unfulfilled project to
compose a commentary to establish a proper understanding of the
most problematic passages of the Bible. It comes then as no surprise
that his exegesis, either of the mystical-philosophical leaning, or of the
ethico-pietistic one, should be replete with allusions to Maimonides’
philosophical postulates.
With perhaps the exception of the less original Tanhum Yerushalmi,
Abraham was virtually the last exegete in the East still imbued with the
spirit of the Andalusian Golden Age. He abundantly quotes from his
Gaxonic predecessors, such as Sa‘adya, the Andalusian school, especially
Abraham Ibn {Ezra, and even Rashi. Long before the text was avail-
able in print, the thirty-three quotations in his father’s name, as well
as those of his grandfather, Maymûn ben Yôsef, particularly attracted
the attention of scholars.23
As a general rule Abraham adopts the literal meaning of the bibli-
cal text, but occasionally incorporates into his commentary his father’s
philosophical explanations. However he makes temperate use of the
latter, taking great pains to maintain a middle path between the
plain meaning of Scripture and those passages open to philosophical

Abraham Maimonides, Commentary on Genesis end Exodus, London, 1958. Frag-
ments had been published formerly by S. Eppenstein, “Beiträge zur Pentateuch-
exegese Maimuni’s”, in Bacher, Brann and Simonsen, eds., Moses ben Maimon, sein Leben,
seine Werke und sein Einfluss, vol. I, Leipzig, 1901, pp. 411–420; idem, Abraham Maimuni,
sein Leben und seine Schriften, ch. II: Der Kommentar Abraham Maimuni zu Genesis und
Exodus, Berlin, 1912, pp. 33–72.
See L. Simmons, The Letter of Consolation of Maimon ben Joseph . . . Also an Appendix,
consisting of those passages in which Maimun is quoted by Abraham Maimonides in his Commentary
on Genesis and Exodus, London 1890 (also in JQR 91890), pp. 334–369, and Eppenstein’s
studies mentioned in the previous note.
112 paul b. fenton

interpretation. The latter comes into play almost exclusively in the

context of prophetic dreams and angelic visions, where he usually
adopts Maimonidean prophetology.24 An instructive example, which
has not received sufficient attention, is to be found in his comments
on Gen. 32: 25–26, a verse repeatedly evoked in the pages of the
Maimonidean controversy. Initially Abraham explains the words “and
Jacob remained alone” as a reference to his withdrawal into a state of
internal seclusion (khalwa bâtina),25 which is a prerequisite to prophetic
inspiration. Thereafter, in a psychosomatic analysis, he relates to the
problem arising from Maimonides’ interpretation of Jacob’s combat
with the angel as a figment of the imaginative faculty. How then can
one explain that Jacob was physically impaired, as a result of which
he began to limp?
Do not be surprised about how [this could occur] in such a state, which
is not a reality but a projection of the imagination.26 Indeed, does a man
not perceive in his dream that he is travelling and, upon awakening, feels
exhausted, or does he not see in his dream that he was struck and, upon
awakening, he experiences pain, for the bodily limbs react to the faculty
of imagination? If this be so in the case of an ordinary dream, how
much more so under the sway of a prophetic vision.27
A similar explanation was later offered by a number of Maimonides’
defenders, but it is clear that Abraham anticipated them.28
To a certain extent, Abraham also accepts the social and historical
factors his father gave as reasons for the commandments. For instance,
in connection with the prohibition of mixing milk and meat based on
the verse “ye shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23: 19),
Abraham argues that this was a pagan custom “as explained by my
father and teacher”.29

Cf. Wiesenberg, op. cit., pp. 59, 85, 109, 121, 123, 125, 177, 195, 227, 245, 247,
309, 391. It is noteworthy that whereas Maimonides speaks of the levels of prophecy
as darajât, Abraham calls them maqâmât (stations), a decidedly Sufi term. Cf. Abraham
Maimuni, Responsa, ed. A.H. Freimann and S.D. Goitein, Jerusalem, 1937, p. 39 and n. 5.
On the meaning of this term, see our Treatise of the Pool, 2nd ed., London, 1995,
pp. 15–16.
As explained by Maimonides, Guide II, 42, ed. Qafih, Jerusalem, 1972, p. 424.
Wiesenberg, op. cit., p. 108.
Cf. Nahmanides’ objections to Guide II, 41 (ed. Qâfih, p. 422), in his Commentary on
Gen. 18, 1 (ed. Chavel, Jerusalem, 1959, p. 104. Cf. Yom Tob Ishbili, Sefer ha-zikkarôn,
ed. K. Kahana, Jerusalem, 1983, pp. 59–62; Efrayim al-Naqâwa, Sha‘ar kebôd ha-shem,
Tunis, 1902, fol. 86–89; Abrabanel on Guide II: 42, ed. Warsaw, 1872 (2nd ed. Berlin,
1925), p. 115.
Wiesenberg, p. 484. Cf. Guide, III, 48, ed. Qâfih, p. 653.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 113

The tendency to justify the precepts rationally is also applied in the

Kifâya, for example in connection with the ablution of the hands before
grace (mayim ’aharônîm):
It appears to me that the reason for which the [Rabbis] enjoined the
ablution of the hands before grace and their emphasizing its [impor-
tance] above that of the ablution of the hands before meals, is because
the preparation for grace after meals is a Biblical injunction and a minor
prayer. That they associated this obligation with the notion of danger,
establishing this as the apparent reason according to the religious law, is
so that people be heedful of its performance, on account of their fear of
danger, and not relate to it without due consideration.30
In the continuation of this passage he supplies as a parallel to this
explanation the rational justification his father offers for the notion of
danger inherent in the drinking of an even number of goblets, which
was also to counter superstitious and idolatrous beliefs.31
Undoubtedly, the most interesting and original aspect of his exegetical
method are those interpretations related to his esoteric doctrines and
the particular pietistic path he advocated, whose principles he sought
to uncover in the biblical narrative and particularly in the patriarchal
past and the biographies of the prophets. Thus the Sufi rituals which
were practiced in his day are projected back into the scriptural past and
attributed to the patriarchs and prophets. If the patriarchs spent the
majority of their lives in the wilderness, isolated from material pleasures,
according to Abraham Maimonides this was so they could devote them-
selves to spiritual perfection through reliance on God and asceticism in
the manner of the Sufi hermits who resided in the desert.
In his introduction to the second part of the Guide, Maimonides
had already claimed that he had rediscovered the esoteric doctrines
of ancient Israel which had fallen into oblivion on account of the
tribulations of the exile. Abraham too repeatedly refers to the subtle
mysteries of the Torah, which he intentionally refrains from expound-
ing. However, upon scrutiny, it becomes clear that these are not the
philosophical mysteries to which Maimonides alluded, but they are Sufic
and pietistic explanations. It is these that he calls “mysteries”, since their
understanding requires an intuitive grasp (dhawq, lit. “taste”), a term
which is frequently found in subsequent pietist exegesis.

Kifâya, ed. Dana, p. 222.
Cf. TB Pesahîm, fol. 109b. As far as I am aware, Maimonides’ opinion on this
point is not known from elsewhere.
114 paul b. fenton

An instructive illustration is to be found in his elucidation of Ex.

34: 9, “may He advance in our midst”, since after having given his
own pietistic explanation, he quotes his grandfather’s comment on the
When Moses’ comprehension had increased and, on account of such a
state, he had grasped fuller understanding, his attachment and yearning
waxed stronger. He prayed for continuity and permanence, not only for
himself but for the whole congregation, that each individual may attain
the utmost perfection possible and abide therein. Moses expressed this by
saying: “Would that all the people were prophets” (Num. 11: 29). This
is a delicate notion which calls for intellectual subtlety. My grandfather
stated that the meaning of this prayer was the indwelling of the Divine
Presence in the Sanctuary, as it is said: “Make me a sanctuary and I will
dwell in your midst” (Ex. 25: 8). This is a correct explanation though
Scripture can be interpreted in many ways.32
In spite of its wide and varied content and vivid and appealing style,
Abraham Maimonides commentary did not gain universal recogni-
tion, most probably because it was never translated into Hebrew in
the Mediaeval period. Another reason was that its religious and ethi-
cal options, upon which his original exegetical method was based was
peculiar to his personal tendency which, in the long run, did not gain
wide currency within the community.


According to the same above-quoted epistle it is known that three years

previous to his death, Abraham had completed his magnum opus Kifâyat
al-‘abidîn, (Hebrew title ha-maspîq le-‘ôbedey ha-shem “A Compendium for
Devotees”) whose revivalist programme earned for him the epithet
Abraham he-hasîd “the Pious”. Though this monumental digest of Jew-
ish law, ethics, theology and pietism had in part “been broadcasted to
distant countries”, as Abraham himself affirms, and was indeed quoted
by thirteenth-century Western scholars,33 and continued to be quoted by

Wiesenberg, pp. 476–478.
In his Birkat Abraham, Lyck, 1859, fols. 53, 54, 55, 56, 58, 60, Abraham refers to
Jonathan b. David ha-Kohen of Lunel and his teacher Abraham b. David of Posquières.
It is not surprising then that his writings aroused the interest of the Provencal scholars,
to whom, moreover he had adressed his Milhemet ha-shem. Quotations from the Kifâya
are to be found in: Aaron b. Jacob of Lunel, ’Orhôt hayyim, Jerusalem, 1956, fol. 24,
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 115

Eastern scholars right down to the seventeenth century, it has, unfortu-

nately, not survived in its entirety. Nonetheless, substantial portions of
the work, including many genizah fragments, are preserved in various
libraries, and since the publication of important parts of the ethical
and legal section, in particular those dealing with liturgy, its content is
no longer a matter of speculation.34
By dint of its sheer volume, this work was probably the most impor-
tant product of all Judaeo-Arabic literature. In its original form the
work consisted of four parts, each divided into ten sections, each of
which was again subdivided into ten chapters. Only two parts have
come down to us in a more or less complete state, they alone containing
500 pages. Supposing that the remaining chapters were of the same
scale, the work must have consisted of about 2,500 pages, i.e. thrice
the size of the Mishneh Tôrâh. A large part of the ethical chapters was
published in the thirties of the last century by S. Rosenblatt,35 whereas
the liturgical section was edited by N. Dana together with a Hebrew
translation.36 It is particularly regretful that the final section, in which
the author developed his conception of the ultimate goal (wusûl), or
mystical realization, seems to have been lost.37 Since Maimonides, too,
dealt with this notion in the final chapter of the Guide, it would have
been instructive to compare the two approaches.38
One particular chapter of the Kifâya, that dealing with the interpreta-
tion of the Midrash, came to be considered as a separate composition
and was thrice translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages and in the

180 (Provence); Solomon b. Simon Duran (Rashbash), Responsa, Leghorn, 1742, §162;
Samuel Zarza, Meqôr hayyim, Mantova, 1559, pericope Ki tissâ’ (in fine), Moses al-Ashqar,
Responsa, Venice, 1554, §18, §96, §104; David Ibn Zimra, Responsa, Venice, 1709, vol. 4,
§94; Joseph Caro, Kesef mishneh, hilkhôt qorban pessah, 2, 13 (cf. Abraham, Maimonides,
Birkat Abraham, p. 3); Bezalel Ashkenazi, Shittâh mequbbezet, Baba mezi‘a, Warsaw, 1901,
fol. 61b; Mas‘ûd Roqeah, Ma aseh roqeah, Venice, 1742, fol. 1–2; Minhat hinnukh, London,
1997, mizwâh 1, §22, mizwâh 106, §2, mizwâh 559, §4, 7.
See our “En marge du Kitâb Kifâyat al-‘âbidîn”, REJ 150 (1991), pp. 385–405,
where we present a reconstruction of the missing portions.
S. Rosenblatt, ed. and trans. The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides,
New York-Baltimore, 1927–1935.
Rabbi Abraham ben Moshe ben Maimon, Sefer ha-Maspik le‘ovdey Hashem, Kitâb Kifâyat
al- âbidîn, ed. N. Dana, Ramat-Gan, 1989.
See infra n. 63.
Guide III, 51, ed. Qâfih, p. 675: “behold there are some who have attained (wasal)
something of his great apprehension”. Cf. Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah
Heleq, ed. Qâfih, Jerusalem, 1965, p. 214: “spiritual attainment (wusûl), which is called
metaphorically ‘speech’ ”.
116 paul b. fenton

sixteenth century, with the title Ma amar al ha-aggadôt.39 In recent times

fragments from the original Arabic have been discovered in the genizah.40
Let us not forget that Maimonides also intended to compose a special
work on the interpretation of the midrash from a philosophical stand-
point, but this desire too remained unfulfilled.41 Perhaps this chapter by
Abraham is to be also perceived as the son’s realization of his father’s
wish, although, as we shall see presently, in a specific paragraph of this
section, Abraham inveighs against philosophy.
In many respects, especially in its halakhic portions, the Kifâya can be
construed as an Arabic version of the Mishneh Tôrâh. Like Maimonides,
Abraham attempts to organically include within the purview of the
halâkhâh matters that, strictly speaking, lie beyond its boundaries.
Rosenblatt, for example, has appropriately characterized the first portion
of the Kifâya as a counterpart to the Sefer ha-mada‘.42 Generally speak-
ing, this entire synthesizing enterprise resembles his father’s attempt
to present a codified programme of Jewish law and ethics. If it is true
that Maimonides had been requested to translate his Code into Arabic,
an eventuality, by the way, to which he was adverse,43 the Kifâya is by
no means a mere Arabic transposition or even a servile imitation of
the Code. It is an independent work that betrays a very definite shift in
emphasis in relation to the latter. Abraham’s approach is less prescrip-
tive than it is descriptive, less expository and more interpretative. He
will expound the ethical and spiritual dimensions of the precept, rather
than unravel its halakhic intricacies. On the other hand, Abraham
often dispenses with the latter by referring the reader to his father’s
Code. For example, while dealing with the prescriptions relating to the
phylacteries, he discusses the “corporeal prerequisites” (isti‘dâd badanî)

An ancient anonymous translation is to be found in ms. Neubauer 1649, copied
in Poland in 1465. It was published and printed several times from this manuscript,
for example in Kerem Hemed 2 (1836), pp. 7–61; Maimonides, Qôbez II, pp. 40–43, and
recently in R. Abraham Maimonides, Milhamôt ha-shem, pp. 81–98. A second transla-
tion was made in the East in the sixteenth century by Abraham Ibn Migash (See A.
Harkavy, Hadashim gam yeshanim 10 (1896), p. 87) and a third, in the same century, in
the Maghreb by Vidal Sarfati of Fez in the introduction to his commentary on the
Midrash rabba, Imrey yôsher, Warsaw, 1874.
See E. Hurwitz, Ma amar al ’ôdôt derashôt Hazal , Joshua Finkel Memorial Volume, New
York, 1974, pp. 139–168. To the fragments discovered by the latter scholar, can be added
the following two Genizah fragments we have identified: Westminster College, Arabica
II.39 and AIU, Paris IIA 1, which originally belonged to the same manuscript.
Guide, Introduction, ed. Qâfih, p. 9.
Rosenblatt, I, p. 31.
See his letter to Ibn Gâbir in Maimonides, Epistles, ed. Shilat, I, Jerusalem, 1987,
p. 409.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 117

and then “spiritual prerequisites” (isti‘dâd qalbî) which consist in “mental

concentration and reverence on account of the sacred Divine names
which he bears” and that:
all this should be present in his mind with constant attention. For one
places [the phylacteries] on the crest of the head, which is the instru-
ment of reflection, the principle of sensation and movement, opposite
the eyes, as well as on the arm, opposite the heart, and such a state does
not admit inadvertence or loss of awareness.
On the other hand, the author of the Kifâya summarizes the legal
subtleties by referring to his father’s Code:
There are prescriptions which I have abbreviated and in respect of which
I refer [the reader] to the rules relating to the phylacteries in my father’s
Again, while mentioning the daily recital of a hundred blessings, he
restricts himself to the observation:
My father and teacher specified the formulation of these hundred blessings
and dealt with them in the rules relating to prayer so that it is unneces-
sary to repeat them here.45
As far as can be gathered in view of the incomplete state of his literary
Nachlass, Abraham does but rarely deviate from his father’s position
in regard to the determining of the halâkhâh. But here is not the place
to enter into a detailed discussion of Abraham’s approach to deciding
the halâkhâh in comparison to father, since such an undertaking would
of necessity be partial, precisely since we are not in possession of the
Kifâya in its entirety.
It is characteristic of Abraham that even in those points where he
differs from his father, the matter is almost imperceptible. The cir-
cumstances proceed in such a natural and automatic manner from his
father’s words, that they seem as though they are their true explanation.
In actual fact, in most cases, it is nigh impossible to establish whether
Abraham intentionally covered up his points of divergence, or whether
he in fact believed that his decision was conform to that of his father.
There is also a third possibility, more daring, and that is that perhaps
in particular instances Abraham does in fact transmit Maimonides’ true

Ibid., p. 264. See also pp. 261 and 266.
Ibid., p. 247.
118 paul b. fenton

opinion which had not been specified in writing. Three illuminating

examples will suffice:

1. The first is an exception to the rule we have just stated, insofar as

Abraham here overtly contradicts his father’s words.
He requires ablution of the hands in circumstances where other
authorities, including Maimonides, forbade it, such as on the Ninth of
Ab and the Day of Atonement.46 In contrast, Abraham, perhaps through
zealousness on account of the special attention given to ablutions in
Sufism, permits this in contradiction to his father, whose opinion he
dismisses with extreme courtesy. On the same occasion he reveals to
us an interesting aspect of his father’s nature:
However I am of the opinion that the ablution of the hands as a pre-
requisite to the recital of the monotheistic profession and the Eighteen
blessings is obligatory on the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Ab
just like any other day, and that the sages did not prohibit it. For it
is not a “pleasurable ablution”, my proof being the obligation—now
abrogated—of immersion for one who had had a nocturnal emission.
Had father heard [my arguments] he would certainly have acknowledged
them as he had recommended to accept the truth. Indeed, we would
consistently observe how he would agree with even the most junior of
his disciples in regard to truth, in spite of his immense learning which
did not belie his outstanding piety but “who can comprehend errors?”
(Ps. 19: 13).47
Sometimes Abraham bases his words on those of his father, but carries
certain details further in a pietist direction.

2. The second example touches on the question of how one is to sit

in a synagogue. Maimonides had ruled in the Code:
How are the congregants to sit in synagogues? The elders are to be
seated facing the congregation, with their backs to the Ark, whereas the
congregants sit in rows, each row facing the backs of the row in front so
that all the assembly are facing the Ark, the elders and the almemor.48
The following passage presents Abraham’s justification of this form of
seating facing the elders:

Kifâya, ed. Dana, p. 247.
Kifâya, ed. Dana, p. 70. Similarly, in Birkat Abraham, p. 21, no 13, he recognizes
that a certain reading may have escaped his father’s notice, and in his Responsa, §64,
p. 69, he bluntly accepts that Maimonides “inadvertently erred”.
Code, Laws of Prayer, 11, 4. Maimonides’ words are based on Tosephta Megillâh, ch. 4.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 119

In order that fear of them descend upon the assembly, in the contempla-
tion of whose faces is to be found benediction (berâkhâh) for the congrega-
tion which is conducive to an intensification of their concentration.49
Perhaps one can perceive in this recommendation an allusion to a Sufi
practice known as tawajjuh, i.e. contemplating the face of one’s shaykh, or
representing his features in one’s imagination with the aim of inducing
spiritual inspiration.50
Despite this inner meaning, Abraham, together with his companion
Abraham he-hasîd, abolished this practice:
I am among those who erred in this respect earlier in my life51 until God
opened my eyes and I relinquished this practice [. . .]. on this account I
am of the opinion that all the congregants, elders and non-elders alike,
should face the ark, and I and Rabbi Abraham the pious both conducted
ourselves accordingly.52
Sometimes it appears that Abraham is following his father when in fact
he goes off on a completely different tangent. A first example is taken
from their respective commentaries on Abôth 5: 8: “Ten miracles were
wrought in the Temple [. . .] though the people stood closely pressed
together, they found ample space to prostrate themselves”.
Maimonides comments:
In the Temple courtyard they stood opposite each other and at the
moment of prostration they were not pressed nor did they push each
other on account of the feelings of great reverence in this place.53
On the one hand, the Nagîd adopts Maimonides’ explanation which
neutralizes the supernatural element in the Mishnâh account. However,

Kifâya, p. 96.
On this practice see J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, London, 1973,
pp. 213–214. Incidentally, a similar exercise, which in our opinion is borrowed from
Sufi techniques, is later to be found amongst the Kabbalists and their successors the
Besht Hasidim. See David Ibn Zimra, Responsa, III, no 910; Moses Cordovero (ob. 1570),
’Ôr yaqar, VIII, p. 263 (on Zohar II, fol. 123b), IX, p. 179; idem, Shi‘ûr qôma chap. 85,
ed. Warsaw, 1883, p. 86; Abraham Azulay (ob. 1643), Hesed le-Abraham, Vilnius, 1877,
fol. 15b; Meshullam Feivish Heller (ob. 1795) of Zawierce, Derekh Emet, Zhitomir, 1855,
pp. 24–25; Nahman of Brazlav (ob. 1811), Liqqûtey Moharan, II, no 192.
That is in accordance with his father’s opinion.
On Abraham he-hasîd, see our article “Some Judaeo-Arabic fragments by Rabbi
Abraham he-hasîd, the Jewish Sufi”, JSS 26 (1981), pp. 47–72.
Commentary on the Mishna, Neziqin, ed. Y. Qâfih, Jerusalem, 1965, p. 496. Again,
compare Maimonides’ commentary on Abôth 1: 6, ed. Qâfih, p. 412: “Appoint yourself
a teacher” with that of the Nagîd in Kifâya [The High Ways to Perfection], ed. Rosenblatt,
II, p. 422.
120 paul b. fenton

on the other hand, he explains the saying as if the Hebrew safûf

(“crowded”) were the Arabic word saff “a row”, in order to prove that
one is required to stand in orderly rows during prayer. As is known,
this stipulation was attacked by Abraham’s opponents who qualified it
as an imitation of a non-Jewish custom:
For they were disarranged in the manner in which they stood, for it was
a disorderly formation, with some standing forward and some backward,
in contradiction to how the Israelites stood in former times, referred to
by the Mishnâh—“they stood in rows”. The latter is the obligatory mode
and all others constitute an erroneous custom which it would be best to
annul in favour of that which is incumbent.54
The second illustration of departure from Maimonides’ intention is
taken from chapter 25 of the fifth part of the Kifâya, dealing with the
laws relative to respect to be shown in the synagogue:
Amongst the matters concerning the management of a Jewish community
about which one should know is the necessity to elect a group of choice
individuals (akhyâr) who are modest (a‘fâ ) and abstinent (zâhid ) with
regard to worldly matters, desirous of the Hereafter. They should practice
continuous solitude (munqati‘în)55 in the synagogue in order to study the
Torah and devote themselves to Divine worship (at-tafarrugh lil-‘abôdâh),
being preoccupied with this religious pursuit above their physical wants.
Others should see to their needs just as God recommended in connection
with the priests and Levites. These individuals are those referred to by
the Sages as “devotees of the synagogue” as mentioned in the Mishnâh
Megillâh (1: 3): “Which is called a great city? All that have ten devotees,
short of which it is to be considered a town.” A certain commentator
claimed that these ten devotees refer to judges, scribes, the synagogue
precentor, and school teacher.56
This at first was also my father’s opinion57 but which he later withdrew.
It was fitting for him to relinquish this opinion since the synagogue precen-
tor, and school teacher, etc. are not required to have no other occupation
or to reside in the synagogue so that they are called “the devotees of the
synagogue”. On account of this, father was quite specific in his explanation
concerning them in his Mishnâh commentary when he stated: “ten persons
should reside in the synagogue who have no other preoccupation besides
dealing with the needs of the community, the reading of the Tôrâh, and

Kifâyâ, ed. Dana, p. 73. See also p. 148.
zâhid and munqat‘i are technical terms designating degrees of abstinence in Sufi
Cf. Rabbi Nissim b. Reuben of Gerona, Novellae on Megillâh, ed. Y. Yabrow, Jeru-
salem, 1966, fol. 3b; Ozar ha-ge ônîm megillâh, Jerusalem, 1933, p. 74; Ozar ha-ge ônim,
sanhedrin, Jerusalem, 1967, p. 143.
Cf. Mishneh Tôrâh, laws of Megillâh I, 8.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 121

residing in the synagogue.”58 The latter is a substitute for the Temple in

which it is fitting that there reside solitary devotees ( ibâd munqati‘ în) after
the fashion of the “men of the watch” (Mishnâh ta‘anît 4: 3). In the same
way that one should take pains to appoint judges to sit in judgment [. . .]
so should one see to it that such congregations should be appointed in
order that all who seek the Lord may listen to them and imitate them in
order to lend decorum to Israel’s divine worship.59
Abraham’s understanding of the rôle of the “ten devotees” is completely
different from that of his predecessors, including his father, whose words
he inflects into an absolutely novel direction. The phenomenon which
Abraham is in fact describing is a Jewish version of the Sufi institution
called khânqa, a sort of monastery whose spread reached unprecedented
extension under the Ayyubid and Mameluk rulers. The latter afforded
their protection to the mystical orders, establishing for them khawâniq,
in which the Sufi hermits worshipped, ate and lodged, while devoting
themselves to their particular form of worship. Their members were
also supposed to serve as an ethical example to their Muslim contem-
poraries.60 Thanks to the support of the rulers Sufism prospered and
developed, becoming a profession and an institution.61 Apparently,
their spiritual example also influenced Abraham who proposes here
the establishment of a Jewish khânqâh.


Abraham was more interested in the sprit of the halâkhâh rather than
its letter, and as could be expected, this spirit was enthused with the
pietist ideal. In point of fact, the Kifâya is a new interpretation of the
halâkhâh and Jewish ethics in consonance with the spirit of hasidism.
Whereas the initial chapters of the Kifâya rehearse the halakhic topics
of the Mishneh Tôrâh, albeit with a more pronounced emphasis on their
spiritual purport, the fourth and final section of the book, devoted to

Here in fact ends the quote from Maimonides’ commentary on Megillâh 1, 3, ed.
Qâfih, p. 345. The rest of the paragraph is actually an addition by Abraham.
Kifâya, ed. cit., pp. 112–113. Cf. Maimonides, Responsa, ed. J. Blau, I, Jerusalem,
1958, §123, pp. 219–220.
To this purpose a whole literary genre concerning the ethics of companionship
was developed in order that the hermits contribute to the elevation of the social level.
Cf. Sullami, Âdâb as-suhba, ed. M. Kister, Jerusalem, 1954, p. 80.
On this phenomenon, see L. Fernandes, The Evolution of a Sufi Institution in Mamluk
Egypt: the Khanqah, Berlin, 1988.
122 paul b. fenton

the “special way”, assumes the form of a Sufi manual. In other words,
in his attempt to incorporate into the halâkhâh non-legal matters, the
Nagîd was advocating the pietist way of life as an integral part of reli-
gious practice, for even in its legal parts the Kifâya invariably presents
the halakhic principles from a pietist angle. His differentiation between
the “general way” and the “special way” follows the distinction made
by Maimonides in the Mishneh Tôrâh between “worship through fear”
and “worship through love”.62
The final chapters of this section of the Kifâya (ch. 8–10) which
embrace his ethical doctrine, are devoted to what Abraham calls “special
wayfaring” (Arabic: sulûk khâss) or the “elevated paths” (Arabic: al-masâlik
ar-rafî a) whose final goal is wusûl (“attainment”) or the mystical expe-
rience.63 This concept, which constitutes the key-stone of Abraham’s
doctrine and forms the subject of the concluding section of the Kifâya,
is borrowed from Sufi technical terminology, as is the term with which
he designates the wayfarers of these “elevated paths”: as-sâlikûn. In
addition, the stages leading to this goal—sincerity of actions (ikhlâs
al-a‘mâl ), mercy (rahma), generosity (karm), gentleness (hilm), humility
(tawâdu‘ ), faith (ittikâl ), contentedness (qinâ a), abstinence (zuhd ), the war
against the self (mujâhada), the government of the faculties (dabt al-quwâ),
solitude (khalwa)—are common to the spiritual stations of the Sufi path
as presented in their manuals, such as the Risâla (epistle) of the famous
master {Abd al-Karîm al-Qushayrî written in 1080.
Besides the virtues which are extolled by the moralists (adab), such
as compassion and generosity, Abraham emphasizes two particular
virtues which occupy an important place in Sufi ethics: humility and
the struggle against the evil inclination, considering humility one of
the noble means to attain wusûl, which he calls kabôd. It is in light of
this that he understands the verse “and before honour goeth humility”
(Prov. 15: 33). Humility in the presence of God requires submission
which finds expression in the bowing, prostrations and weeping carried
out during divine worship, which Abraham, as we shall see, considered
an important component of prayer.
It is interesting that he offers two definitions of zealousness the first of
which appertains to the realm of ethics, i.e. that a person give reflection

Laws of repentance, ch. 10.
On this notion, see our article “New light on R. Abraham Maimonides’ Doctrine
of Mystical Experience”, Daat 50 (2003), pp. 107–119 (in Hebrew).
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 123

and intellect predominance over the dictates of passion and nature.64

The second defines zealousness according to the elevated path and is
typically Sufi. It corresponds to the pietists’ combat against the self in
their training for contentedness, abstinence, humility, and similar vir-
tues.65 It demands refraining from excessive indulgence in the satisfying
of physical needs such as nourishment, clothing, shelter, sexual appetite,
and even speech. Here we come upon an interesting point:
Among the things, moreover, in the case of which it is obligatory to
restrain the impulse from what is not necessary and to employ it in what
is necessary is the matter of speech, concerning which it has been said:
“But who can withhold himself from speaking?” ( Job 4: 2) Now it is not
necessary for me to say anything in addition to what my father and teacher
has said in the treatise of Abôt (1: 17) in explanation of their statement:
“All my days I have grown up among the sages, and I have found nought
better for the body than silence”. Grasp then what he has said there and
preserve it in thy mind and set it always vis-à-vis thine eyes, and hold thy
tongue or release it in accordance therewith.66
In fact Abraham had already dealt with reduction of speech (taqlîl
al-kalâm) in the previous chapter devoted to the war against the self
(mujâhada). There, entirely in keeping with a Sufi outlook, he sees the per-
fection of this virtue when the pietist attains the “goal”, i.e. silence.67
Though the Nagîd endeavours to legitimize his ideas from Jewish
sources, he does not hesitate to combine his ethical theory with Sufi
concepts and rituals which, he claims, were formerly of Jewish origin.
This tendency also characterizes his commentary on the Pentateuch in
which he portrays, as we have already seen, the biblical figures as Judaeo-
Sufis, much as in the same way as Sufi literature garbs Muhammad
and his companions in the Sufi frock.68 Indeed, Abraham does not
hesitate to idealize the comportment of the Muslim ascetics, in whom
he discerns the heirs of an ancient Jewish tradition. For example, in
the discussion about the struggle against the body, he claims that the
Sufis’ efforts to extirpate slumber derive from Jewish sources:

Rosenblatt, II, p. 313.
Ibid., p. 316.
Ibid., p. 366.
Ibid., p. 413.
See our article “The Maimonidean School of Exegesis in the East”, in M. Saebo
(ed.), Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: the History of its Interpretation, Göttingen, 2000, pp.
124 paul b. fenton

We also see the Sufis of Islam proceed in (this) war (against the self ) to
the combating of sleep, and perhaps that (practice) is derived from the
statement of David: “I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to
mine eyelids” (Ps. 132: 4)69
Then he continues:
Observe then these wonderful traditions and sigh with regret over how
they have been transferred from us and made their appearance among
someone else than our nation, and been hidden among us, about situations
like which they have said, in explanation of: “But if ye will not hear it,
my soul shall weep in secret for your pride” ( Jer. 13: 17). What is meant
by “for your pride”? Because of the pride of Israel that was taken away
from them and given to the nations of the world (TB Hagîgâh 5b).70
Consequently, he is far removed from the reserve his father expressed
about asceticism and mortification in his commentary on Abôt:
However, that which some of the pious enacted at certain times when
they would lean towards one extreme, such as in the case of fasting,
combating sleep at night, abstaining from the consumption of meat
and drinking of wine, sexual continence and the donning of wool and
sackcloth, sojourning in the mountains, and practicing solitary retreats
in the wilderness.71 They did none of this except as a manner of healing
[. . .]. But when the fools observed these pietists carrying out these acts,
they did not understand their intention, and believed that that was right
and they adopted these acts thinking that they would imitate them. They
would mortify themselves with all sorts of sufferings believing that they had
already reached attainment and were acting rightly, and that through this
they would draw nigh to the Lord, as if God was the enemy of the body
and desired its loss and destruction. They are unaware that these acts are
wrong and that, on their account, man contracts spiritual vices.72
Control of sleep and the passions, together with contemplation and
the evocation of Divine names are performed in particular during

Rosenblatt, p. 323.
Ibid., p. 323.
Maimonides is undoubtedly referring here to Sufis or Jewish-Sufis who wore
garments of wool, a characteristic of the Sufis whose denomination is said to derive
from sûf (“wool”) i.e. the woollen garments they would wear as a sign of asceticism.
See following note.
Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnâh, Introduction to Abôth, ch. 4, ed. Qâfih,
p. 382. He goes on to say: “If those individuals who imitate certain sects (Sufis?),
whereas they belong to our nation (for my words refer only to them), claim that by
physical mortification and refraining from pleasures, they are only trying to master their
physical impulses . . .”. See also the article by H. Kreisel. “Asceticism in the Thought of
R. Bahya Ibn Paquda and Maimonides”, Daat 21 (1988), pp. 5–22.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 125

the spiritual exercise known as khalwa (“solitary meditation”), the most

typical Sufi practice. Let us not forget that Egypt is the traditional land
of the Coptic hermits, in addition to paying host to the widespread
Khalwati order, who, as indicated by its name, reserved a central place
in its rituals for the practice of khalwa. In contrast to this, in order to
grasp the oddity of this practice in Judaism, let us be reminded that
Jewish worship is essentially a collective phenomenon which upholds
the superiority of communal prayer.
There were, though, precedents to Abraham. Bahya Ibn Paquda
praises the virtues of solitude yet considers it an act of extremeness.
“Real solitude”, he says, “is the company of virtuous individuals”. This
attitude is close to that adopted by Maimonides who gives preference
to urban life. In contrast to this in the final chapters of the Guide, he
expresses the idea that perfection is the fruit of seclusion:
It has thus been shown that it must be man’s aim, after having acquired
the knowledge of God, to deliver himself up to Him, and to have his
heart constantly filled with longing after Him. He accomplishes this gener-
ally by seclusion and retirement. Every pious man should therefore seek
retirement and seclusion, and should only in case of necessity associate
with others.73
Of all Jewish thinkers, his son Abraham is he that devoted the larg-
est treatment to the subject of seclusion to which he reserved the last
chapter of his ethical programme:
Solitude is among the most distinguished of the elevated paths. It is
moreover the way of the very great saints and by it did the prophets
achieve attainment (wusûl ). Now it may be divided into external solitude
and internal solitude, and the aim of external solitude is the attainment of
internal solitude which is he ultimate rung of the ladder of attainment—
nay it constitutes that very attainment.74
He concludes the chapter thus:
Now this path is the last of the elevated paths and it is contiguous with
attainment (wusûl ), external solitude thereof being a journey, and the inter-
nal (solitude) being in its beginning a journey and at its end attainment,
and that which completes (the whole) is the equivalent of the whole.75

Guide III, 51, ed. Qâfih, p. 677.
Rosenblatt, II, p. 382. Also his definition of seclusion was that current in Sufi
literature: “clearing the heart and the mind of everything except God, and of their
being filled with and inhabited by Him” (ibid.).
Ibid., p. 418.
126 paul b. fenton

Even though from a structural point of view the Kifâya, as has been
stated, is based on the model of the Mishneh Tôrâh,76 its halakhic and
ethical content betray a very definite shift in emphasis. It is intriguing
to ask whether Abraham was conscious of his change in approach. Did
he do this intentionally or did he honestly believe that he was express-
ing the same views as his father?
It is possible to ask another more general question. In view of
Abraham’s utter dedication to his father’s legacy, why in so short a
space of time after the composition of the Code—a mere thirty years
after its diffusion—did he see fit to compose a similar work? In light
of his elevated status as Nagîd, communal leader and jurist, it is abso-
lutely understandable that he should have indulged in the writing of
responsa. One can also comprehend his writing of a commentary on the
Torah, which can be viewed as a completion of his father’s writings.
It is harder to explain his embarking on the composition of the Kifâya.
However, the answer to this question is the key to the understanding
of Abraham’s aim and purpose.
In his stimulating article “The Soteriology of R. Abraham Maimiuni”,
G. Cohen attempted to reply to this question by emphasizing the pietistic
perspective underlying his work, in which his propensity for Sufi mysti-
cism is so pronounced.77 According to Cohen, Abraham was trying to
popularize this form of hasidism by integrating it within a complete
and coherent system. Furthermore, by advocating a programme of
strict adherence to halâkhâh, he was also aiming at restraining certain
antinomian tendencies amongst the pietists, some of whom were over-
enthusiastic in their appreciation of Sufism.78 While pointing out the
more popular character of the Kifâya in relation to the elitist style of the
Guide, Cohen describes Abraham’s literary enterprise as an attempt to
confer “intellectual respectability” upon the code of Jewish-Sufi ethics
that he was desirous to propagate.
Although Cohen’s intuition is basically correct, certain points require
elucidation. It is necessary to recall that, far from representing an
antinomian safety-valve, Sufism constituted for Jews in pre-Kabbalistic
times a concrete spiritual model to be emulated. This does not mean,

See the reconstruction of its contents in our article quoted supra, n. 34.
G. Cohen, “The Soteriology of Abraham Maimuni”, Studies in the Variety of Rab-
binic Cultures, Philadelphia, 1991, pp. 209–242.
Ibid., p. 215.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 127

in contradiction to what Cohen subsequently maintains, that Abraham’s

literary undertaking was aimed at staying the flood of apostasy of the
numerous Jews who were converting to Islam. In this he fails to evalu-
ate the utter religious isolation of the dhimmi in a Muslim environment
at that time, which, in our opinion, Sufism would have been incapable
of relieving.
Our investigation of the writings of the pietist circle that elected
Abraham as their leader has revealed two noteworthy aspects in this
respect. Firstly, the pietist movement must have been much more
extensive than hitherto estimated. Secondly, as we have already seen
above, the Judaeo-Sufi tendency had already existed in the generation
of Maimonides, who refers disparagingly to Jews who adopted ascetic
practices characteristic of Sufism, such as fasting, seclusion and the
donning of woollen garments. Even a person in Maimonides’ imme-
diate surroundings, such as Hananel b. Samuel, Abraham’s father-
in-law, adhered to this pietistic circle.79 A further point to ponder is
whether Maimonides’ writings themselves had taken these tendencies
into account, since his ethical principles undoubtedly betray some Sufi
influence. Could it be that the presence of these elements was there
to lend them “intellectual respectability”? Thus the reformulation of
Jewish ethics by the author of the Kifâya is not an attempt to create a
new special tendency, as Cohen claims, but rather, on the contrary, to
consolidate a spiritual phase that was already existent and widespread,
by anchoring it to certain principles belonging to his father’s philosophi-
cal and ethical system. Therefore, Abraham presents the pietistic rituals
not as innovations, and even less as “gentile customs”, but rather as a
restoration of ancient Jewish practice, despite the fact that as a result
of his attempt to introduce the pietistic way and its rituals into the
Synagogue, he was accused of trying to change the established custom,
which was considered blameworthy.80
Indeed, it is much more reasonable to suppose that Abraham’s aim
was intended to defend the pietistic way in the framework of a strictly
orthodox theology. This tendency has a number of Sufi parallels, such

On this personality see P. Fenton, “R. Hananel b. Shemuel ha-Dayyan, Elder of
the Pietists”, Tarbiz 55 (1985), pp. 107–177 [Hebrew].
See M.A. Friedman, “Argument for the sake of Heaven—remarks on the polemics
regarding prayer by R. Abraham, son of Maimonides”, Teudah 10 (1996), pp. 245–298
128 paul b. fenton

as the writings of Abû Hâmid al-Ghazali (ob. 1111), whose spiritual

outlook affords a close analogy to that of Abraham.81
The aftermath of Maimonides took a completely different turn to
that, better known, to which it gave rise in the West. The Maimonidean
camp which spawned in Provence, espoused in subsequent generations
an increasingly radical rationalism to the point of depreciating the
value of the performance of practical precepts. The Guide and the
Book of Knowledge in Egypt, and subsequently in Yemen, that is in their
immediate geographical and cultural context, were not perceived as
contradictory but as two complementary religious approaches. Abraham
was not torn between prophecy and universal philosophy; for him
faith and reason are not mutually antagonistic, since philosophical
speculation can be blended into the purification of intellectual as well
as practical virtues.
In distinction to Maimonides’ stance, which aspires to the ideal,
Abraham the pedagogue measures the distance between theory and
practice, and underlines the importance of repetition of ethical acts in
order to root out vices and implant virtue through habit. Apparently
he turns to an elite who are less gifted than the disciples of the Guide,
or to readers who do not have the philosophical training required for
its study, or to those who had plied its route without reaching its des-
tination. To these disciples endowed with average capacity, Abraham
proposes a progressive programme intended to support the individual
on the practical side, as well as the spiritual and intellectual sides, to
prepare him for the mystical experience.
It becomes clear that Abraham’s principal aim is to be more of a hasîd
than a maskîl. After Maimonides had spelled out his programme of the
halakhic and intellectual virtues to be cultivated in anticipation of the
imminent renewal of prophecy, R. Abraham saw fit to systematize
the necessary ethical discipline ‘of the disciples of the prophets’.
Although he does not undermine the importance of intellectual achieve-
ment, his focus is on ethical perfection. Thus the difference between
father and son does not revolve around the axis of knowledge as much
as it does around that of action. In the Kifâya Abraham calls for extreme
asceticism of a Sufi type, whereas Maimonides, though his commentary

See H. Shussman, “The Muslim Sources of Kitâb Kifâyat al-‘âbidîn”, Tarbiz 55
(1986), pp. 156–229 [Hebrew].
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 129

on Abôt acknowledges the value of asceticism, rejects the latter in favour

of the “middle way” of moderation.82
In this connection it is interesting to quote the judgment expressed
sixty years ago by Julius Guttmann in his discussion of the differences
and commonalities that Maimonides and his son held:
But it is not only the concepts and terminology which Abraham shares
with the Sufis, which separate him from his father. Despite the importance
which he attaches to reason, Abraham was far removed from his father’s
rationalism. According to Maimonides, the link between man and God
was constituted solely and exclusively by theoretical knowledge. Asceti-
cism and mastery of the passions were only means conducive to the full
development of knowledge; conversely, the love of God and humility are
by-products of the theoretical knowledge of God. For R. Abraham, on
the other hand, the former were not merely preparations for contempla-
tion, nor were the latter only its by-products. The purification of the soul
has an intrinsic value, it can link us to God. In this process, theoretical
knowledge is only one among many factors. [. . .] The highest religious
perfection is impossible without intellectual perfection, but is not identical
with it, for it contains other powers and qualities of the soul of equal
value with theoretical knowledge.83
However impressive and intelligently constructed the Kifâya was, it
had a major setback: it did not stem from Maimonides’ pen! Had he
not been the son of such a great father, most certainly it would have
been said of him: “From Abraham unto Abraham there was no other
Abraham”, and the face of Judaism in subsequent generations may
well have strangely resembled Sufism!

The Attitude of Abraham Maimonides and His Contemporaries to Philosophy

In connection with the value that Abraham lends to rationalism it is

interesting to consider his attitude towards Aristotelian philosophy,
in which his father had perceived the highest expression of human
intellect. Although Maimonides’ philosophical thought matured in the
East, for contextual reasons his doctrine was received there in quite a
different way to its reception in the West. In the Orient it was more
the esoteric rather than the philosophical dimension of the Guide that

Maimonides, Introduction to Abôt (supra, n. 66), pp. 379–384.
J. Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism, New York, 1973, pp. 219–220.
130 paul b. fenton

was developed in a practical and ethical direction. Let us recall that

his philosophical doctrine was nurtured on Andalusian soil upon which
flourished the radical rationalism of his co-citizen Ibn Rushd. The lat-
ter had little success in the East where it never succeeded in ousting
Ibn Sina’s system.
A proof of this within the Jewish fold is that, with the exception of
the hawâshî (marginal observations) by David II Maimonides—which
moreover, have not been preserved—and later Yemenite commentar-
ies, no full-scale commentaries were composed in the East on the Guide
comparable to those that were written in the West.
However, one of the common denominators of the reverberations
of the Maimonidean legacy in both East and West was the opposition
to his rationalism. In Egypt there occurred a change from the essen-
tial preoccupation with philosophical issues towards a more pietistic
approach, a spiritualization of Maimonides’ thought, in consonance with
the difference in the intellectual climate of the East, both in regard to
philosophy and the enormous preponderance of Muslim mysticism.
It should be borne in mind that in the East the Guide continued to be
read in the original Arabic. The religious and theological terminology
of the language consequently took on a mystical hue under the spell of
contemporary Sufism, with its leaning towards a life-style of abstinence
and mysticism that led to a reserve, if not a repugnance, towards the
ratiocination of the Aristotelian school.
This development within the Islamic environment had already exerted
a considerable influence on Jewish society at the time of Maimonides84
and continued to do so with renewed vigor during the office of the
Maimonidean negidim.
In his Kifâya, Abraham son of Maimonides and son-in-law of
Hananxel b. Samuel expressed his reservations in the chapter on faith
vis-à-vis the value of philosophy and especially in connection with the
denial of God’s knowledge of particulars, precisely the point raised by
Hananxel b. Samuel in his misgivings about philosophy.85
Now as for the adherents of the Law that understand the Law, they
do consider the (secondary) causes and conceive (that of ) the naturalist
scientists and scholars, not falling below their level. Nay they understand

See supra n. 66.
Guide III, 20, ed. Qâfih, p. 525 and III, 51, ed. Qâfih, pp. 672–685. See also
A. Reines, “Maimonides’ Concepts of Providence and Theodicy”, HUCA XLIII (1972),
pp. 169–206. esp. p. 191.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 131

what the scientists understand and are highly esteemed by them and God,
exalted be He, has (also) enabled them to understand by means of His
law what the scholars and philosophers do not understand, and He has
established for them, by means of His signs and miracles, the proof for
what the latter deny apropos His knowledge, exalted be He, of particulars
and His regard for the conditions of men and His personal providence
for every individual person according to his desert in His presence, just
as He provides for every individual species among the species of nature,
according to the decision of His wisdom and of His will [. . .] and so
they adhere firmly to this principle and set it up vis-à-vis their eyes, and
they are not diverted therefrom by either the observation of (such) sci-
ence, as the science of the philosophy of Aristotle and his followers, or
worldly occupation.86
Again in his Treatise on the Interpretation of Midrash, Abraham adopts an
ambivalent attitude towards Aristotle, which cuts both ways:
Likewise, we are not to question Aristotle saying: “Indeed, he is the
supreme authority of the philosophers, who established truthful proofs
of the existence of the Creator and similar true concepts for which he
supplied proof, and which he verified. However, we are not to dismiss
him saying that (since) he saw truth in the eternity of the world, and in
the denial of God’s knowledge of the particulars, and similar notions,
we are to conclude that just as he erred in respect of these principles of
the faith, likewise he erred in all his statements.”87
Moreover, this reserve towards philosophy already existed in the time
of Maimonides and within his court. A first-hand testimony of great
interest has recently been found to be that of Hananxel b. Samuel, who
was not only a judge in the Cairo rabbinical court, but also Abraham’s
father-in-law. Most familiar with the Master, Hananxel was probably the
first expositor of Maimonides’ writings since he penned a commentary
on the Book of Precepts in which he expressed his differences with the
“Great Eagle” of the Synagogue. The following extract, which may
derive from the aforesaid book, deals with the legitimacy of the study of
philosophy. Hanan’el unhesitatingly adopts a negative attitude towards
philosophy and reviles its study lest the insufficiently prepared student
be caught in the net of heresy. Its pursuit should be reserved exclusively

Rosenblatt II, p. 133.
Abraham Maimonides, Treatise on the Interpretation of Midrash, in: Milhamôt ha-shem,
ed. R. Margaliot, Jerusalem, 1953, p. 86. It is noteworthy that al-Ghazalî, too, in his
rebuttal of the philosophers, Tahâfut al-falâsifa, points particularly to their errors con-
cerning the eternity of the world (refutation 1) and the denial of God’s knowledge of
the particulars (refutation 13).
132 paul b. fenton

for elite individuals, men of great stature such as Maimonides himself,

whose philosophic studies represented a unique occurrence. Indeed,
Hananxel points out that Maimonides’ father Rabbi Maymûn had
never, even for a day, delved into this discipline:
What has induced people into error is the fact that a few of our famous
scholars have practiced these sciences and suffered no harm through their
study. They did not bear in mind that the individuals who emerged intact
from this were exceptional in their generation such as our Master Moses
of blessed memory.88
It is worthwhile recalling that this anti-philosophical stand was not
unique in Egypt at this time. Scarcely a generation after the demise
of Maimonides, Daniel Ibn al-Mâshita, i.e. the above-mentioned (p. 7)
Ibn al-Mâshita (otherwise known as Daniel the Babylonian), in his
polemical work Taqwîm al-adyân (“The Rectification of religion”),
written in 1223, rose up against philosophy and the corrosive effect it
had on religious faith. It is interesting to point out that his systematic
criticism of the Guide broaches almost all of the main issues of the
Maimonidean controversy that broke out a few generations later on
European soil.89 He vehemently attacks Maimonides while advocating
a return to the pristine Jewish tradition which he equates with a Sufi-
type pietism, akin to that taught by the Maimonidean descendants.
For instance, he dismisses Maimonides’ equation of the “account of
creation” (ma aseh berê’shît) and the “account of the chariot” (ma aseh
merkâbâh) respectively as physics and metaphysics of Greek philosophy.
Again he attacks Maimonides’ definition of angels as an intellectual
faculty and not beings that have an actual existence. He also opposes
the philosophic interpretation of biblical anthropological expressions,
and Maimonides’ conception of the Sinaitic revelation as a prophetic
vision and not a historical occurrence, as well as criticizing his ideas
on the resurrection of the dead.90
In a particular passage he claims that philosophic exegesis was a

P. Fenton, “A Re-discovered Description of Maimonides by a Contemporary”,
Maimonidean Studies 6 (2008), p. 280.
The astounding parallels between Ibn al-Mâshita’s strictures and those that were
later raised in the West beg the question whether his book may have been known
P. Fenton, “Daniel Ibn al-Mâshita’s Taqwîm al-adyân: new light on the Oriental
phase of the Maimonidean controversy”, in: J. Blau and S.C. Reif (eds), Genizah Research
after Ninety Years, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 74–81.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 133

characteristic of the Andalusian school of which Maimonides was a

partisan. Though the latter was aware of its snares, he believed that
his proficiency in rabbinic literature, in contrast to his predecessors,
would assist him in achieving the harmonization between reason and
revelation. The result was, according to Ibn al-Mâshita, that he created
an alternative Torah:
In the later part of this period, when some of the members of our faith
among the inhabitants of Andalusia began to preoccupy themselves with
the study of philosophy, they too preferred their opinions to those of the
mutakallimun. They plunged into the ocean of perplexity in seeking to bring
into harmony their knowledge with that of the Torah, for they found no
issue. Some of them who dealt with the Hebrew language, went too far
in the interpretation of certain verses which were in contradiction with
philosophical thinking in order to bring them into accord with acceptable
opinion, as can be observed in the commentaries of Rabbi Moses Ibn
Chiquatilla and Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. Now the latter were not expert
enough in the words of the Rabbis to realize the odious degree of their
opposition to the traditional sayings whose acceptance is binding.
Our Master, Rabbi Moses son of Maymûn, of blessed memory, being
the foremost scholar of rabbinic tradition and the leader in the knowledge
of philosophy, understood the loathsomeness which had taken hold of
them and knew the perplexity that would affect those that gave preemi-
nence to the opinions of the philosophers when reflecting upon the words
of Scripture. He therefore decided to remove these loathsome thoughts
and guide those prone to perplexity by giving an allegorical interpreta-
tion to the words of the Torah so that they would be in keeping with
philosophical speculation. Thus he interpreted the biblical and rabbinic
texts in an unprecedented manner, expressly stating that he had devised
the latter from his own mind and had not learned them from a master.
He paid no attention to common beliefs and traditional explanations,
since he considered that no statement of the Rabbis prohibited allegori-
cal interpretation with proper reflection for an individual proficient in
their words. However, he (. . .) for they do have numerous hindrances
which become apparent after their elucidation based on premises (. . .)
and they can be refuted. If we consider the discrepancies which have
arisen among the two groups, we find them to be the axis of the Torah
upon which revolve the Israelite religion and the truthfulness of its tenets.
Verily, the Torah has become as two laws, as divergent as the disparity of
their individual convictions, their reciprocal disapproval and their mutual
condemnation of ignorance and heresy.91

Daniel Ibn al-Mâshita, Taqwîm al-adyân, St.-Petersburg, ms. II Firkovitch I. 3132,
fol. 76b–77a.
134 paul b. fenton

Prophetology was at the core of the Jewish-Sufi doctrine Recently,

I have come across a pietist text which levels sharp criticism against
Maimonides, and, amongst other things, has this to say about his theory
of prophecy:
Goodness, how weak is their statement, but how great its harm to the
soul! Had they just expressed that which others had stated, namely that
God transmits his influence to his saints in a manner whose essence we
mortals do not know, their claim would have had a greater effect upon the
soul. Indeed, were we to know its essence, we would surely have become
one of the prophets ourselves. However, they have led men astray, while
claiming to direct them. They have left them perplexed, whereas they
claimed to guide them.92 Thank God, the judges have already deliberated
[. . .].93 The cause of all this was our sins [. . .] as it is written “Your sins
[have hid His face from you, that He will not hear]” (Is. 59: 2).94
In fact this abandonment of the study of philosophy has been described
by an Iberian Jew who visited Egypt in 1310, approximately a century
after Maimonides’ disappearance, during the reign of his descendants.
Joseph Ibn Kaspi (circa 1280–1340), a spiritual disciple of Maimonides,
is the author of a commentary on certain passages of the Guide. He
relates in his Sefer ha-Musar, an ethical epistle which he composed for
his son, how he was so enamoured with the philosophy of Maimonides
that he had only one desire: that was to escape to Egypt and, to use
the expression in Pirke Avot, to wallow in the dust at the feet of his
All my days I endeavoured to grow among the wise, but I found no repose.
Twenty years ago I wandered to a place reputed for its learning. Indeed,
I went to stay at the ends of the ocean and descended unto Egypt,95 the
residence of the great master and perfect sage, the Guide.96 I found there
the fourth, even the fifth, generation of the descendants of the hope of
his holy seed. Though they were indeed pious men (sadîqîm), none did
indulge in the sciences.97 Indeed, in all of the East none were scholars
(hakhamim) and I said to myself using a verse from Isaiah, “Woe to those

An obvious pun on the title of Maimonides’ Guide.
Perhaps a reference to further reactions against Maimonides.
P. Fenton, “Criticism of Maimonides in a Pietist Text from the Genizah”, Ginzey
Qedem 1 (2005), pp. 158–160 (in Hebrew).
A pun on his namesake’s—the biblical Joseph’s—descent down to Egypt.
ha-Môreh, which also means the “teacher”.
hôkhmôt, but he probably means philosophy.
maimonides—father and son: continuity and change 135

who go down unto Egypt for help” (Is. 31: 1). And I returned to my land
shamefaced, the journey to and fro having taken five months.98
The above is to be seen in the wake of the general decline of philoso-
phy in the lands of the East since the end of the Fatimid period and
its recoiling before the rising wave of Sufi mysticism, which disputed
philosophy’s claim to true knowledge.
Finally, we wish to say a word about the great interest of these texts
and the light that they throw on the anti-philosophical stance taken by
Maimonides’ close associates and descendants. It opens up a vista onto
the intellectual isolation of Maimonides in relation to his milieu, helping
us in turn to understand from another viewpoint his words in the epistle
addressed to Jonathan ha-Kohen and the community of Lunel:
My colleagues at this difficult time, you and those that reside in your
region are the only ones that hold aloft the banner of Moses. While you
study the Talmud, you also cultivate the other sciences, whereas here in
the East, men of wisdom diminish and disappear. Thus salvation will
only come to us through you.99


Daniel Ibn al-Mâshita, Taqwîm al-adyân, St. Petersburg, ms. II Firkovitch I. 3132.

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Mordechai A. Friedman

The affinity of experience among the various religious communities in

Arab countries during the High Middle Ages is documented and elu-
cidated in Goitein’s masterful A Mediterranean Society. A plethora of data
on the Jewish community preserved in the Geniza most often reflects
realities within the predominant Muslim society and the Christian
minority as well.1 There was a free exchange of views between Muslim
and Jewish savants. This remarkable phenomenon is epitomized by a
discussion on theology, kalām, whose participants were Maimonides, the
chief qadi of Cairo Ibn Sanā al-Mulk and another Muslim religious
scholar from Aleppo.2
All this granted, I confess my constant wonder at the degree to which
members of medieval Mediterranean society were familiar with the rites
of divine service practiced by other religious communities. The influence
that one denomination had on the other in these matters, which are at
the very heart of each group’s self-consciousness, is indeed remarkable.
I am inclined to believe that this familiarity with the other’s religion may
have been even greater than in contemporary Western society, despite
our cosmopolises and exposure in the mass media to multi-denomina-
tional religious issues. My surprise is undoubtedly largely a result of
the different orientation of our secular, democratic culture from that
of our Mediterranean counterparts during the Middle Ages. For me
it serves as a reminder of the difficulties students of medieval Judaism
and Islam have in freeing themselves from preconceived notions and
the obstacles that inhibit us in approaching our sources objectively.

Goitein, Med. Soc. See the bibliographical abbreviations at the end of the article.
This study was prepared with the assistance of the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Chair in
Jewish Culture in Muslim Lands and Cairo Geniza Studies, Tel-Aviv University.
Rosenthal, “Discussion”. On the intellectual interchanges between the various
groups in medieval Islamic society, see, e.g., several studies by Joel Kraemer and recently,
Kraemer, “Intellectual Portrait”; Sklare, Ben ofni (esp. pp. 99–141).
140 mordechai a. friedman

Contacts between Islam and Judaism in matters of prayer and the

influences of one religion on the other do not, of course, necessarily
attest a spirit of tolerance and ecumenism. Abraham Maimuni’s out-
spoken admiration of the preparations and positions attending prayer
in Islam and his adapting them to Jewish prayer are remarkably unique
phenomena. Some words are in order on Maimuni’s pseudo-Islamic
prayer reforms as seen from the perspective of his family history.
The familiarity of the Maimonides family with Islamic prayer may
owe much to inimical circumstances. As is well known, some Arab
historians describe the conversion of the Maimonides family to Islam
under the Muwa idūn (Almohad) persecution. According to Ibn al-
Qif ī, our main source for this alleged apostasy, Maimonides read the
Quran and participated in the prescribed prayers during the period in
which he acted ostensibly as a Muslim. Ibn Abī Usaybi a reports that
Maimonides learned the Quran by heart and engaged in the study of
Islamic law. And Al- afadī claims that on the ship in which Maimonides
traveled from Morocco to Eretz Israel he participated in the tarāwī
prayers for the month of Ramadan.3
Details of some of these allegations appear to be fallacious, and con-
temporary scholarly opinion is divided on the question of Maimonides’
forced apostasy while in the Maghreb. Ibn al-Qif ī recounts how an
Andalusian Muslim met Maimonides in Egypt in his later years and
reported him to the authorities for having reverted to Judaism. The case
was brought before Maimonides’ patron, the qadi al-Fā il al-Baysānī,
who ruled that conversion to Islam under coercion was invalid and
acquitted Maimonides. Skeptics cite this as proof of the spuriousness
of Ibn al-Qif ī’s account, since one who apostatizes from Islam is liable
to the death penalty. This specific objection does not withstand critical
scrutiny, however. In his book of instructions for notaries public, the
tenth century Andalusian writer Ibn al- Attār states that if a dhimmī
(= member of a protected minority) were coerced to accept Islam
and later reverted to his former religion, he was not to be penalized,
and this rule was repeated by Maimonides’ Andalusian contemporary,
al-Yazīrī. Recent research by Yohanan Friedmann adduces additional,
firm evidence for this rule. Moreover, in Egypt, Christians and presum-
ably Jews, who had been forced to convert to Islam under al- ākim,

See Ibn al-Qif ī, Ta rī , pp. 317–9; Ibn Abī Usaybi a, Uyūn, p. 582; Margoliouth,
“Legend”, pp. 539 ff. See Wensinck, “Tarāwī ” for this type of prayer.
abraham maimuni’s prayer reforms 141

were subsequently allowed by him and his son to revert to their former
religion. From the Geniza we know that Yemenite Jews, who accepted
Islam rather than execution in 1199, were permitted to openly espouse
Judaism in 1202.4
Much of the Epistle of Consolation, composed in Fez in 1159/60 by
Maimonides’ father, the judge Maymūn, was devoted to the predica-
ment of Jews, who had lived ostensibly as Muslims for years and may
have no longer been familiar with the Jewish liturgy.5 Maimonides in
his Epistle on Apostasy, written a few years later, also discusses the prayers
of Jews who had been coerced to ostensibly accept Islam. An anony-
mous Jewish scholar had asserted that any Jew, who recited the shahāda
(“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s messenger”) and
thereby proclaimed his acceptance of Muhammad’s prophecy, became
a non Jew, and the prayer that he recited according to Jewish ritual in
the privacy of his home was considered an abomination. Maimonides
rejected this position. While categorically denying Muhammad’s pro-
phecy, Maimonides acknowledged Islam’s absolute monotheism. He
ruled that were a Jew’s life threatened, he was permitted to recite the
shahāda and feign acceptance of Islam. Were he compelled to pray in
the mosque and later recited the Jewish prayers in his home, they were
accepted by God.6
After he settled in Egypt, Maimonides promulgated several enactments
which modified accepted Jewish practice.7 All of these were intended
to remedy domestic problems or judicial and procedural irregularities
associated with the community leadership, with the noted exception of
one enactment that concerned prayer. In Jewish congregational prayer,
the central part of the liturgy, the amīdā, that is the prayer said while
standing, is recited by all the congregants in silent devotion and then
repeated aloud in its entirety by the prayer leader. The repetition was
originally intended for the benefit of congregants who were unfamiliar

For Ibn al- Attār and al-Yazīrī see Abumalham, “Conversión”. On Egypt, see
Lev, “Persecutions”. Cf. Friedmann, Tolerance, pp. 144–145; Ahmad, “Conversion”.
The return to Judaism of Yemenite Jews is the subject of TS 28.11; see the annotated
translation in Goitein, Letters, pp. 216–20 (cf. Cohen, Crescent, p. 176). A new edition of
this text is found in Friedman, Maimonides, pp. 167–178; Maimonides’ alleged apostasy
is discussed ibid., pp. 31–37. Also see Kraemer, “Intellectual Portrait”, p. 17.
See the discussion by Ben-Sasson, “Prayer”.
See the discussion in Friedman, Maimonides, pp. 27–29.
For a review of Maimonides’ enactments, see Friedman, “Social Realities”, id.,
“Maimonides and Zū ā.”
142 mordechai a. friedman

with the prayers and unable to recite them on their own. By the twelfth
century it had by and large become superfluous. Maimonides instructed
that (on the Sabbath and Holidays) the amīdā be recited only once, by
the entire congregation together with the prayer leader. He explained
that the enactment was necessitated by the deplorable behavior of the
congregants during the reader’s repetition, a situation which, I fear,
may not be totally unfamiliar today.
When the prayer leader recites the prayer aloud, whoever has already
prayed and fulfilled his obligation turns to conversation or senseless jabber
(hadhayān) and turns his face away from the qibla (the direction of prayer)
and expectorates and blows his nose . . . . And when the congregation does
not recite the silent prayer at all but all pray together with the prayer
leader . . ., the desecration of God’s name is eliminated, because (presently)
what the Gentiles (= Muslims) see is the Jews expectorating and blowing
their noses and talking during prayer.8
Concerning prohibitions in the Torah we say, “It is a time to act for
the Lord, violate Your teaching!”9 How much more so does this apply to
the order of prayer! This (ruling) removes the desecration of God’s name,
for they (the Muslims) are of the opinion that for us prayer is jesting and
jeering (la b wa-huz ).10
Maimonides thus attests that Muslims openly observed the prayer service
in the synagogue. In his opinion, they held it in ridicule; and this was
the primary cause for his radical enactment, an admitted “violation of
Your teaching.” In his superb study Islamic Influence on the Jewish Worship,
Naphtali Wieder elucidates the background of the Muslims’ ridicule and
Maimonides’ response: the sharp contrast between the Jewish service
and the Islamic one, the latter characterized by perfect decorum and
military-like discipline.11
As for expectorating and blowing the nose during prayer, in his
legal code the Mishne Torah, Maimonides rules that before reciting
the amīdā one should cleanse his mouth and nose from mucus. The
Talmud decries expectorating and sneezing during prayer but does
not prescribe the preparations, which Maimonides requires. It seems
reasonable to assume that he was influenced by Islamic practice, since

Maimonides, Responsa, II, 479–484 (no. 258); Shailat, Letters, II, pp. 565–570.
Psalms 119:126 as interpreted in Berakhot 63a.
Maimonides, Responsa, II, 469–476 (no. 256), cf. p. 548 (no. 291); Shailat, Letters,
II, 579–587.
Wieder, Influence, pp. 26 ff.; cf. Blidstein, Prayer, pp. 169 ff. (and on Wieder,
p. 292, n. 88).
abraham maimuni’s prayer reforms 143

the sunna (Islamic tradition) recommends clearing the nose and washing
the mouth prior to prayer.12
Maimonides remained unbending is his rejection of Islam as a
divinely revealed religion and of Muhammad as a prophet. He took
up the theme in several of his writings, especially in his Epistle to Yemen.
The latter was written in response to a missive by Jacob b. Nethanel
b. Fayyūmī, who described a Messianic pretender in Yemen and the
forced conversion of Yemenite Jews. Furthermore, the Jews there
harbored doubts as to the superiority of Judaism to Islam, which
were reinforced by biblical proof texts in support of Islam cited by an
apostate. Maimonides repudiated all of the apostate’s arguments from
the Bible. I call attention to one example because of the remarkable
distinction concerning it between Maimonides and his son. The apostate
had claimed that the revelation of Islam was promised in Gen. 21:13,
where Abraham is assured of God’s blessing for Ishmael: “As for the
son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is
your seed.” Maimonides explained that the verse contained nothing
but the blessing of progeny.
The master’s interpretation of the verse not only corresponds with
its simple meaning but also is completely consistent with the predictable
approach of the leading Jewish authority in the polemic between Juda-
ism and Islam. Remarkably, his son Abraham Maimuni’s interpretation
of the verse was diametrically opposed. According to him, Gen. 21:13
indeed foretold the revelation of Islam, after the religion of Israel would
enter a period of darkness! The apostate had claimed that Islam sup-
planted Judaism, and Maimonides that the Torah was eternal and Islam
a fabrication of falsehoods. Abraham Maimuni, contrariwise, argued
that elements of the true religion of Israel had been lost; Judaism could
be returned to its pristine state only by reintroducing those essentials
that, by divine grace, had been preserved in Islam.13
Following his father’s demise in December 1204, Abraham Maimuni,
then eighteen years old, moved to assume the position of Head of
the Jews in Egypt, and by 1213 he assumed the title Nagid. As with

See Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Tefilla 4:10, 11 (ed. N.L. Rabinowitz, Jerusalem
1984, pp. 211 ff.); Berakhot 24a–b; cf. Blidstein, Prayer, pp. 98–99. The subject is
briefly discussed by Abraham Maimuni; see Kifāya (Dana), pp. 62, 72 (the manuscript
breaks off after the beginning of the latter passage); Wieder, Influence, pp. 17–18. On
the sunna, see Shorter EI, p. 635.
See Maimonides, EY, pp. 40–42; Wiesenberg, Perush, pp. 42–45; cf. Friedman,
Maimonides, p. 100.
144 mordechai a. friedman

his father’s headship, Abraham’s was born in discord and survived in

constant controversy. The family of community leaders who had held
the office before his father served as Rayyis al-Yahūd led the opposi-
tion to Abraham’s headship. They were known as Sons of the Sixth
(the sixth fellow of the board which headed the Palestinian Academy,
whose seat was then in Egypt), and the struggle between them and the
Maimonidean family over the headship was multifaceted and spanned
generations. During Abraham’s tenure it was markedly aggravated
by and inextricably bound to the polemics engendered by his prayer
reforms. These ruptured the fragile facade of mutual tolerance between
members of different congregations and adherents to disparate synago-
gal traditions within the Egyptian Jewish community. Geniza documents
and Abraham Maimuni’s writings reveal that tensions ran high in the
community, and desperate appeals for assistance were addressed to
courtiers and to Muslim authorities and queries to Jewish and Muslim
On the one hand, Abraham Maimuni’s innovations can be charac-
terized as orthodoxy. Most of the relevant Geniza documents refer to
this aspect of his activity. He emended seeming deviations from the
compulsory liturgy and liturgical practices, especially targeting the
singular, time-hallowed traditions of kanīsat al-Shāmiyīn, the synagogue
of Fustat (Old Cairo), which followed the ancient Palestinian custom.
Members of the congregation traced the history of their synagogue
over a period of more than 600 years, to the pre-Islamic era. In the
month of Adar 1211, they issued a manifesto, a copy of which, found
in the Geniza, has recently been published by Ezra Fleischer. The
congregants reaffirmed their devotion to their ancestral custom and
forswore any attempt to alter it. Their resolution was strengthened by
opinions written by legal authorities in response to their appeals. These
included both fatwas and teshuvot by Muslim and Jewish jurisconsults.15
In 1909 R. Gottheil published the Arabic text, found in the Geniza,
of a query to the chief mufti. The writers identify themselves as Jews
who have synagogues standing for “an extended period and founded
in order to observe certain rituals and customs.” Their cantors were
loyal to their ancient customs, but a party had been formed whose

See the discussion of these events in Friedman, “Controversy”, pp. 267 ff.
See Friedman, “Opposition”, pp. 74–76, 89–90 (600 years); Fleischer, Prayer, pp.
219–29. Cf. Friedman, “Controversy”, pp. 251 ff.
abraham maimuni’s prayer reforms 145

goal was to compel them and their cantors to alter their rites. Was
this permitted “in the days of Islam, may Allah make them eternal?”
Another version of this query was identified by Goitein and published
by Paul Fenton.16
The following is a translation of large sections of the Judeo-Arabic
text of a letter addressed to a Jewish physician with close contacts in
the sultan’s court. It evidently relates to approximately the same period
as the 1211 manifesto, and because of the references to Mordecai and
Esther, heroes of the Purim festival, it too may have been written in
the month of Adar. The letter deals explicitly with the attempt of an
ambitious leader of the community—whom I identify as Abraham
Maimuni—to prohibit the recitation during the synagogue service of
piyyutim, that is, liturgical poems. Like other authorities, both Mai-
monides and his son opposed the recitation of these poems because
of certain legal technicalities, primarily because they disturbed one’s
concentration during prayer.
Through your efforts the resolutions of the past shall be strengthened and
by virtue of your grand nobility the affairs of Torah affirmed. Concern-
ing these they (the opponents of our ancient rites) have said: “They have
fallen; their rites have been obliterated; the founders erred; the ancestors
were mistaken and stumbled.” . . . The words of those who promulgated
the rites—may God’s mercy be on all of them!—shall be validated, the
ancestors’ teachings upheld by those who obey them, and the affairs shall
be set in order—in your life—after they have been ruined, and may their
integrity be proclaimed!
Our master is aware of what has occurred concerning the prayers and
the rites. Those people (the opponents) were not satisfied with our exile
and the poverty and degradation we suffered among the nations of the
world, as long as it was possible for us to congregate in the synagogues for
reciting qedusha and qadish! Because of our abundant sins, once we were
spared the wickedness of the Gentiles, He sent the wickedness of he who
craves power and rivalry. In former times the Rayyis (Head) sought to
enhance the embellishment of the creed, on the festivals by (introducing)
liturgical qerovot poems and on Sabbaths liturgical poems for the evening
service and other piyyutim during the prayers. This matter is famous in
all the lands. We have responsa from our savants stating that it is permis-
sible, and there is nothing wrong with it. Those now in power intend to
curtail what the ancients established and repudiate the virtuous men of

Gottheil, “Gleanings”; Goitein, Med. Soc., II, 406, 615, n. 14; Fenton, “Prayers”,
pp. 17–21 (the latter document, TS Ar. 41.105, is reedited by Khan, Documents, pp.
291–2; also cf. Friedman, “Controversy”, p. 272).
146 mordechai a. friedman

piety. They demand that we embrace their opinions, accept their rulings
and abandon our beliefs. He even pressures us to repudiate ourselves
and abase our forefathers, to say: “Our fathers inherited utter delusions,
things that are futile and worthless” ( Jeremiah 16:19). . . .
House of Israel, if you see that as a result of much bribery we have
been delivered a deathblow and have been slaughtered, know that over
the teaching of our fathers and forefathers and prophets we have been
slaughtered. Esther, despite her royalty and good fortune, followed the
sense of honor of the saint (al-sayyid ) Mordecai. She took courage from
it, as the verse says, “I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the
law” (Esther 4:16).17
It is well known that they (the opponents) are God-fearing (only) because
of money and large numbers—for design, not for the divine (li- illa lā
li-llāh). All of them have become judges and cantors and administrators
of the pious foundations. . . . With the assistance of the Exalted Creator,
we have procured fatwas from the Muslim jurisconsults that confirm that
he (the Head) may not compel us to alter anything. We are in the worst
possible trouble. May God, the Exalted, dispel it! We already sought to
have a royal decree of the sultan executed, but they did not accept it from
us.18 We have informed his eminence (the addressee) of our situation. We
have betaken ourselves to God, the Exalted, and to you, that you might
act in our behalf, according to your well-known efforts and your sense of
honor as a descendent of Levi, of blessed memory, and your association
with the sultan and his distinguished courtiers. May God, the Exalted,
by His glory and sublimity increase His graciousness on you! May there
be fulfilled in you “And you will find favor and approbation in the eyes
of God and man” (Proverbs 3:4). We ask assistance of the Creator, the
Exalted, and of your felicitous sublimity. Shalom.19
Definitive information on the outcome of the dispute between Abraham
Maimuni and the followers of the ancestral liturgical rites is found in
a passage from his magnum opus Kitāb kifāyat al- ābidin (in brief, the
Kifāya), “the Complete Guide for God’s Worshippers.” The passage was
first published in the 1860s and has been frequently cited since then,
but due to the elusive style of the Judeo-Arabic text, portions of it, I
believe, have not been translated properly.
You should know that the customs of the exiles in their prayers and Torah
reading contain various categories of corruption, comprising the games
played by leaders, who intend thereby the ceremonies of headship, and
the innovations of cantors of little or no learning. The correct and the

The addressee is likewise urged to appeal to the sultan.
The translation of the last phrase is tentative.
This document, TS 8 J 21.12, is edited in Friedman, “Protest”.
abraham maimuni’s prayer reforms 147

corrupt are commingled, as are the required and the undesirable, the
laudable and its opposite. Learned, pious20 and religious people have
refrained from censuring them for reasons that we cannot verify, either
because they were powerless to censure or because that which others
understand was not clear to them—and this does not detract from their
merit—or for other reasons. . . .
We see with our own eyes in this city in which we reside, Fustat, two
well-known synagogues. One is called “the Iraqis.” Its custom in prayer
and Torah reading is like the custom of all the exiles. The second is called
“the Palestinians (Shāmiyīn).” Its custom is different from any other. In this
one they read the annual lection; in the other the triennial lection. They
stand for qedusha in this and sit in the other; and there are differences
in many other particulars. My father and master—may the memory of
the pious be a blessing!—used to censure this,21 but the most evil of evil
men and other(s)22 silenced him. Another scholar would cry out and seek
assistance, but to no avail.
We are the ones (viz., I am the one) who united the custom of the
two congregations at the beginning of our leadership. And we hope that
our reward for the merits we accumulated thereby balance whatever loss
we incurred by not applying ourselves to religious perfection and pursuit
of esoteric acts.23
Other savants cooperated with Abraham Maimuni in the orthodox
prayer revisions, foremost among them R. Joseph Rosh ha-Seder, an
immigrant from Iraq. In detailed responsa he repudiated the legitimacy
of the Palestinian synagogue traditions that differed from the Babylonian
ones. The combined efforts of Abraham Maimuni and R. Joseph Rosh
ha-Seder mark the closing of the final chapter in the proud history of
the Palestinian ritual and signal the obliteration of the last remnant
of the autonomous legal tradition of the Talmud Yerushalmi.24 In the
passage cited above, Abraham Maimuni explicitly defined his actions
in unifying the prayer customs of the two synagogues as bringing to
successful fruition his father Maimonides’ earlier steps, which had been

Arabic dayyinīn (cf. Friedman, Maimonides, p. 166, n. 118), rather than dayyānīn,
A faint allusion to Maimonides’ disapproval of the triennial cycle is found in
Mishne Torah, “Tefillā” 13:1. See Friedman, “Controversy”, p. 260.
“The most evil of evil men” translates shar al-ashrār. This is probably a derogatory
pun on the Hebrew title sar ha-sarīm used to designate Sar Shalom ha-Levi Gaon. See
Friedman, “Controversy”, p. 260, n. 64; id., “Maimonides and Zū ā”, p. 494. “And
other(s)”, Arabic wa-ghayruh might have been copied inadvertently from the continuation.
Kifāya (Dana), pp. 179–180. For a detailed analysis of this passage, see Friedman,
“Controversy”, pp. 256–263.
The relevant responsa of R. Joseph Rosh ha-Seder are edited in Friedman,
148 mordechai a. friedman

aborted due to the opposition of his political rival in the community

leadership of Egyptian Jewry.
From the perspective of Jewish liturgical history, Abraham Maimuni’s
acts of intolerance in the face of divergent traditions and his enforce-
ment of orthodoxy were of greater lasting significance than his original,
radical reforms of the synagogue service. But the latter capture our
attention and intrigue us. Following in the footsteps of his mentor,
R. Abraham the Pious, Abraham Maimuni was the spiritual leader of
a pietistic movement, asīdūt, which he unabashedly fashioned after the
Islamic model of Sufism. Maimuni’s radical prayer reforms were made
in the spirit of Sufism and manifestly imitated Islamic practice in divine
worship.25 Particular attention was paid to the preparations for prayer
and the positions assumed during prayer. These were intended to enable
the supplicant to better direct his thoughts to the Almighty, as a slave
supplicates his master. The Kifāya chapter on prayer is largely a defense
of these innovations in the synagogue service. These include sitting in a
kneeling position ( julūs ta abbud) with outstretched arms, in straight rows
facing Jerusalem (the qibla), with numerous acts of genuflection (rukū )
and prostration (sujūd). Wieder’s study focuses on these sections of the
Kifāya. Now that Dana has published them in full, some points in the
Nagid’s discourse may be examined in greater detail.26 But Wieder’s
seminal work remains the definitive statement on Maimuni’s pietistic
reforms as on the Islamic influence on Jewish worship in general.
Some words are in order here concerning the few texts, other than
the Kifāya, which deal with Abraham Maimuni’s pietistic prayer reforms.
Two items in his collected responsa are relevant. In the first (no. 4), dated
Adar 13, 1234, he countered the attacks on himself and his followers
by Hodaya b. Yishai, a Nasi, that is, a descendant of the Davidic line.
“All I do is exert myself in the worship of the God of Israel—blessed
be His name!—with all my heart and all my soul, and perform many
acts of genuflection and prostration and the like. I do not conceal them,
and I have already written of them in my composition.”27
This statement is reminiscent of Abraham Maimuni’s declaration
reported in a letter published by Goitein in one of his early Geniza stud-
ies. The writer relates that the Sons of the Sixth, Abraham Maimuni’s

This has been illuminated by Wieder, Influence and in many groundbreaking studies
by Fenton, e.g. Fenton, “Dynasty”. See also Maimon, “Limits”.
Kifāya (Dana).
Maimuni, Responsa, p. 19. The “composition” refers to the Kifāya.
abraham maimuni’s prayer reforms 149

political rivals, submitted a petition to the sultan al-Malik al- Ādil in

which they complained that the Nagid had altered their prayers. In
response, he wrote a personal declaration, which he presented to the
sultan’s court: “In worshipping God, I have voluntarily undertaken
supererogatory genuflection and prostration and prayers, in my home
for myself. I have not compelled anyone to accept them, nor have I
forced them to alter a thing in their synagogues.” Two sultans called
al-Malik al- Ādil were active during Abraham Maimuni’s tenure, and
for various reasons Goitein assumed that this document referred to the
first and was to be dated before 1218. Thanks to Goitein’s later Geniza
researches, it can be demonstrated that the letter was written during
the rule of the second sultan, probably in 1235.28
The pietists not only practiced the supererogatory acts of prostra-
tion and prayers each in his home. They also gathered in study halls
and elsewhere for congregational services. In another responsum (no.
62) Maimuni defended pietists who held such services. A Geniza letter
published by Goitein preserves the complaint by a pietist from Alex-
andria that a Nasi had aroused opposition to their services. “And evil
men rose against us, exerting themselves to prevent our worship (lil-
mujāhada fī man ibādatinā).” The writer mentions the arrival of a missive
by Abraham Maimuni.29 In all likelihood, the two responsa (nos. 4 and
62) and the two Geniza letters all refer to the communal dissension
over the pietistic prayer innovations from the same period.
As we have already seen, the conservative loyalists of the kanīsat
al-Shāmiyīn asserted that their liturgical rites had been observed since
antiquity. In a draft of a portion of the Kifāya preserved in the Geniza
and published by Goitein, Abraham Maimuni complains that oppo-
sition to his pietistic movement came from all sectors of the Jewish
community. Opponents primarily argued that the reforms were in
direct contravention of Talmudic teaching and were to be repudiated
as unequivocal imitations of Islamic practice. The Nagid countered
that he had actually reinstated forms of prayer and devotion current in
Israel in antiquity. Because of our sins, he argued, during the extended
night of exile, these modes of worship had been forgotten and were

TS Ar. 51.111, ed. Goitein, “Documents”; cf. Friedman, “Controversy”, p. 276.
TS 10 J 13.14, ed. Goitein, “Pietist Circle”.
150 mordechai a. friedman

preserved only among Sufis, the Muslim pietists and the true disciples
of Israel’s ancient prophets.30
Abraham Maimuni’s allegation that he was merely restoring ancient
Jewish practice (see above on Gen. 21:13) is epitomized in the follow-
ing passage from Ma asē Nīssīm, his response to R. Daniel ha-Bavli’s
challenges to Maimonides’ Book of Commandments. Though published in
1867, the Judeo-Arabic text had not been translated accurately, and the
purport of the passage eluded students of the Nagid’s writings.
In the little time which we may be able to utilize and free ourselves from
serving (the rulers), our coreligionists—may they be blessed!—burden
us. They demand most of it for administering their affairs. Our preoc-
cupation with them has overwhelmed us, especially since we have found
matters that had been confused and religious affairs that had become
defective, over many years and long periods. We renewed the rites and
practices as required by their former state and their order according to
the desired statutes and religious regulations, to the best of our feeble
ability. Accordingly, we can be considered as having revived them after
their death, because trace of them had vanished, moreover as having
re-created them, since knowledge of them was so far removed. But if
because of our preoccupation with this we have missed the reward for
some of the benefits of learning, we hope to be compensated by the
reward for beneficial acts.31
After Abraham Maimuni’s death in 1237, opponents of his pietistic
reforms again took steps to prevent his followers from praying accord-
ing to his teachings. This time it was the pietists who petitioned the
authorities. G. Khan recently published a Geniza manuscript that
contains a copy of their query to Muslim jurisconsults. The Nagid’s
followers write that he and sages who agreed with him
had established the practice of genuflection and prostration (rukū wa-
sujūd) and had taught that these had been part of their religion in antiq-
uity, and they had reestablished what had fallen into oblivion in their
religion. . . . When their Rayyis (Head) died, a man who was not a sage
took office. He spoke in opposition to their earlier sages, and censured
genuflection and prostration. What action should be taken with regard
to him on account of his opposition . . .?32

Draft: Goitein, “Defense”. Abraham Maimuni’s claim, see Wieder, Influence, pp. 70
ff. As already noted, P. Fenton has investigated the debt to Sufism owed by Abraham
Maimuni’s pietistic movement in several studies, e.g., Fenton, Deux traités, pp. 75–76.
Ma asē Nīssīm, p. 107; cf. Friedman, “Controversy”, pp. 265–266.
TS AS 182.291, ed. Khan, Documents, pp. 293–4, 9 (the translation cited here
with minor changes).
abraham maimuni’s prayer reforms 151

As far as I know, the jurisconsults’ reply has not been preserved, but
there is no denial that Abraham Maimuni’s pietistic prayer reforms,
epitomized by genuflection and prostration, fell into oblivion.
When did Abraham Maimuni introduce his radical innovations and
what was his rationale for doing so. Due to various considerations that
I shall not elaborate now, it can be estimated that the reforms were
promulgated ca. 1213–15, but almost certainly before 1215/6. Abraham
Maimuni himself explains the necessity for his pietistic reforms in the
following passage from his Kifāya:
Nothing is more necessary than these recommended (prayer) obligations.
“It is a time to act for the Lord, violate Your teaching” (Psalms 119:
126). . . . There is no salvation from this extended suffering in the exile
but through [seeking Him]. . . . What is the path to this? Because of our
sins, the Temple is in ruin. We are denied sacrifices . . . No attention is
paid to prayers and the like. Rather they are carried out perfunctorily
and with game playing.33
Abraham Maimuni’s assertion that his pietistic prayer reforms reinstated
the rites of worship practiced in ancient Israel cannot be dismissed
categorically. Questions of primary and secondary influences in prayer
between Judaism and Islam will continue to occupy scholars for some
time.34 Nevertheless, he subjects some of his proof texts from classical
Jewish sources to such forced interpretation, that it is difficult to avoid
the conclusion that he saw in them artful contrivance. He may have
implied as much by use of the verse “It is a time to act for the Lord,
violate Your teaching” (Psalms 119:126), on which, as we have seen,
his father Maimonides based his prayer reform.
I suggest that the urgency for promulgating the pietistic reforms was
not only the perennial need for spiritual enlightenment in the darkness
of exile. Geniza texts prove that the year in which prophecy was to be
renewed in Israel (a portent of the coming of the Messiah) announced
by Maimonides in his Epistle to Yemen was 1215/6. In anticipation of
that great event, there was a major religious revival in Yemen that
year with ancillary reforms of ancient practices. The Yemenites also
corresponded with Abraham Maimuni concerning these matters. His

Kifāya (Dana), p. 184.
Among recent studies on the history of prostration in Jewish prayer mention
should be made of Langermann, “Devotion.”
152 mordechai a. friedman

pietistic innovations, I propose, served the same purpose: preparing the

way for the promised era.35
In conclusion, Abraham Maimuni continued a certain pattern begun
by his father and to a certain extant by his grandfather. They had been
sensitive to Islamic influences on Jewish prayer and in response to these
made allowances and even promulgated momentous enactments, as
Maimonides’ abrogation of the reader’s repetition of the silent prayer.
Maimonides tempered his desire to revise Palestinian prayer customs
by political exigencies and the importance of avoiding communal strife.
For his son Abraham these seem to have been secondary considerations.
His orthodox and reform innovations stirred great controversy. In
presenting his Sufi-like prayer reforms, he used the same categories as
in his father’s code for the preparations for prayer and the obligations
attending it. As the Islamic theologian Ghazālī had done before him,
Maimuni redefined the Arabic terminology used for such categories,
so that supererogatory acts became obligatory.36 Moreover, he extended
the content of these categories, such as prostration in prayer, far beyond
anything intimated in his father’s writings. Abraham’s boasting of hav-
ing revived ancient traditions that had fallen into oblivion unquestion-
ably demonstrates that he was well aware of the revisionist nature of
his reforms. He nevertheless presented himself as a continuator of his
father’s teachings. The overtly paradoxical nature of this claim can be
epitomized by his assertion that had his father been aware of Abraham’s
explanations, he would have accepted his ruling that it was obligatory
to wash one’s hands in preparation for prayer on the fast days of Yom
Kippur and the Ninth of Av, even though this was blatantly contrary
to Talmudic law and his father’s explicit writings.37

Bibliographical Abbreviations

Abumalham, “Conversión” = M. Abumalham, “La conversión segun formularios

notariales andalusíes: Valoración de la legalidad de la conversión de Maimónides”,
Miscelanea de Estudios Arabes y Hebraicos, XXXIV (1985), 71–83.

See Friedman, Maimonides, pp. 50 ff., 187 ff.
See Friedman, “Controversy”, pp. 248–249.
See Kifāya (Dana), pp. 70–71. The subject of this paper will be elaborated in a
comprehensive study now in preparation on Abraham Maimuni’s prayer reforms.
abraham maimuni’s prayer reforms 153

Ahmad, “Conversion” = S.B. Ahmad, “Conversion from Islam”, in: Essays in Honor of
Bernard Lewis: The Islamic World from Classical Times to Modern Times (ed. C.E. Bosworth
et al.), Princeton 1988, pp. 3–25.
Ma asē Nīssīm = Abraham Maimuni, Ma asē Nīssīm (ed. B. Goldberg), Paris 1867.
Ben-Sasson, “Prayer” = M. Ben-Sasson, “The Prayer of Forced Converts” [Hebrew],
in: Sanctity of Life and Martyrdom, Studies in Memory of Amir Yekutiel (ed. I.M. Gafni &
A. Ravitzky), Jerusalem 1992, pp. 153–166.
Blidstein, Prayer = G. Blidstein, Prayer in Maimonidean Halakha [Hebrew], Jerusalem
Cohen, Crescent = M.R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, Princeton 1994.
Fenton, Deux traités = P. Fenton, Deux traités de mystique juive, Paris 1987.
Fenton, “Dynasty” = P.B. Fenton, “Abraham Maimonides (1186–1237): Founding a
Mystical Dynasty”, in: M. Idel & M. Ostrow (eds.), Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leader-
ship in the 13th Century, Northvale, N.J. & Jerusalem 1998, pp. 127–154.
Fenton, “Prayers” = P.B. Fenton (Yenon), “From the Geniza: Prayers for the Authori-
ties” [Hebrew], East and Maghreb, IV (1983), 7–21.
Fleischer, Prayer = E. Fleischer, Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals as Portrayed in the Geniza
Documents [Hebrew], Jerusalem 1988.
Friedman, “Controversy” = M.A. Friedman, “ ‘A Controversy for the Sake of Heaven’:
Studies in the Liturgical Polemics of Abraham Maimonides and his Contemporaries”
[Hebrew], Te uda, X (1996), 245–298.
Friedman, “Dispute” = M.A. Friedman, “A Dispute between a Yemenite Divine and
R. Abraham Maimuni Concerning the Marriage Payment and the Authority of
Tradition” [Hebrew], Te uda, XIV (1998), 139–192.
Friedman, Maimonides = M.A. Friedman, Maimonides, the Yemenite Messiah and Apostasy
[Hebrew], Jerusalem 2002.
Friedman, “Maimonides and Zū ā” = M.A. Friedman, “Maimonides, Zū ā and the
Muqaddams: A Story of Three Bans” [Hebrew], Zion, 70 (2005), 473–527.
Friedman, “Opposition” = M.A. Friedman, “Opposition to Palestinian Prayer and
Prayer Rituals as Portrayed in Responsa found in the Geniza (from the Responsa of
R. Joseph Rosh ha-Seder” [Hebrew], in: Knesset Ezra: Literature and Life in the Synagogue,
Studies Presented to Ezra Fleischer, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 69–102.
Friedman, “Protest” = M.A. Friedman, “A Bitter Protest about Elimination of Piyyutim
from the Service: A Request to Appeal to the Sultan” [Hebrew], Pe amim, 78 (1999),
Friedman, “Social Realities” = M.A. Friedman, “Social Realities in Egypt and Mai-
monides’ Rulings on Family Law”, in: N. Rakover (ed.), Maimonides as Codifier of
Jewish Law, Jerusalem 1987, pp. 225–236.
Friedmann, Tolerance = Y. Friedmann, Tolerance and Conversion in Islam, Cambridge
Goitein, “Defense” = S.D. Goitein, “A Treatise in Defense of the Pietists by Abraham
Maimonides”, Journal of Jewish Studies, XVI (1965), 105–114.
Goitein, “Documents” = S.D. Goitein, “New Documents from the Cairo Geniza”,
Homenaje a Millás Vallicrosa, I, Barcelona 1954, 707–20.
Goitein, Letters = S.D. Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, Princeton 1973.
Goitein, Med. Soc. = S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the
Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, I–VI, Berkeley—Los Angeles
London, 1967–1993.
Goitein, “Pietist Circle” = S.D. Goitein, “Documents on Abraham Maimonides and
his Pietist Circle” [Hebrew], Tarbiz, XXXIII (1963), 181–197.
Gottheil, “Gleanings” = R. Gottheil, “Some Genizah Gleanings”, Mélanges Hartwig
Derenbourg, Paris 1909, pp. 83–101.
Ibn Abī Usaybi a, Uyūn = Ibn Abī Usaybi a, Uyūn al-Anbā fī Tabaqāt al-Atibbā , Beirut
154 mordechai a. friedman

Ibn al-Qif ī, Ta rī = Ibn al-Qif ī, Ta rī al- ukamā (ed. J. Lippert), Leipzig 1903.
Khan, Documents = G. Khan, Arabic Legal and Administrative Documents in the Cambridge
Genizah Collection, Cambridge 1993.
Kifāya (Dana) = Rabbi Abraham ben Moshe Maimon, Sefer ha-Maspik le Ovdey Hashem,
Kitāb al- Ābidīn (Part II, Vol. II, ed. N. Dana), Ramat-Gan 1989.
Kraemer, “Intellectual Portrait” = J.L. Kraemer, “Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual
Portrait”, in: K. Seeskin (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides, Cambridge
2005, pp. 10–57.
Langermann, “Devotion” = Y.T. Langermann, “From Private Devotion to Communal
Prayer: New Light on Abraham Maimonides’ Synagogue Reforms”, Ginzei Qedem,
I (2005), 31*–49*.
Lev, “Persecutions” = Y. Lev, “Persecutions and Conversion to Islam in Eleventh-
Century Egypt”, Asian and African Studies, XXII (1988), pp. 73–91.
Maimon, “Limits” = D. Maimon, “Rabbinical Judaism and Islamic Mysticism: the
Limits of a Relationship” [Hebrew], Akdamot, 7 (1999), 9–30; 8 (1999), 43–72.
Maimuni, Responsa = Abraham Maimuni, Responsa (ed. A.H. Freimann and S.D. Goit-
ein), Jerusalem 1937.
Maimonides, Responsa = R. Moses b. Maimon, Responsa (ed. J. Blau), I–IV, Jerusalem
Maimonides, EY = Moses Maimonides’ Epistle to Yemen (ed. A.S. Halkin), New York
Margoliouth, “Legend” = D.S. Margoliouth, “The Legend of the Apostacy of Mai-
monides”, JQR, XIII (1901), pp. 539–541.
Rosenthal, “Discussion” = F. Rosenthal, “Maimonides and a Discussion of Muslim
Speculative Theology”, in: Jewish Tradition in the Diaspora—Studies in Memory of Professor
Walter J. Fischel (ed. M.M. Caspi), Berkeley 1981, pp. 109–112.
Shailat, Letters = I. Shailat, Letters and Essays of Moses Maimonides [Hebrew], Jerusalem
Shorter EI = Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (ed. H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers), Ithaca
Sklare, Ben ofni = D.E. Sklare, Samuel Ben ofni Gaon and His Cultural World, Leiden
TS = Taylor-Schechter Collection, Cambridge University Library.
Wensinck, “Tarāwī ” = A.J. Wensinck, “Tarāwī ”, EI 2, X, 221b.
Wieder, Influence = N. Wieder, Islamic Influence on the Jewish Worship [Hebrew], Oxford
1947 (reprinted in Wieder, The Formation of Jewish Liturgy in the East and the West
[Hebrew], II, Jerusalem 1998, 659–755).
Wiesenberg, Perush = Perush Rabbenu Avraham ben Harambam (ed. E.J. Wiesenberg),

Y. Tzvi Langermann

The past few decades have witnessed a veritable inundation of studies

on Maimonides’ Guide. Scholars today realize full well that Maimonides’
great work must be studied in the original, and most academic studies
duly cite the Judaeo-Arabic text. Nonetheless, the reception of Mai-
monides’ book—Dalālat al- ā irīn, rather than Moreh Nevokhim —within
the Arabic speaking communities of the Middle Ages, has been sorely
neglected.1 I am presently engaged in a comprehensive investigation of
this wide and important topic, which, I hope, will yield a book-length
study. In this paper I would like to present some preliminary observa-
tions on the most widely diffused commentary to the Judaeo-Arabic
text, produced within the community that maintained the longest and
most intensive tradition of study of the Dalāla: Shar al-Dalāla of the
Yemenite savant Zekharya ha-Rofé.
Zekharya’s proper name is Ya yā ibn Sulaymān; as a rule, Yemeni
Jews bearing the name Ya yā were called Zekharya. Hardly any
biographical details are available; his dated works were written in or
around the year 1430. A prolific author and glossator, he has left us
philosophical interpretations of the Pentateuch, Song of Songs, and
rabbinic midrash as well as extensive commentaries on the Maimoni-
dean corpus.2

Mention should be made of two small publications, each presenting a portion of
the same Yemeni gloss to the Dalāla found in MS Berlin, Or. Oct. 258 [= Steinschneider
108], that appeared early in the twentieth century: I. Horn, Ein anonymer arabischer
Commentar aus dem XV Jahrhundert zu Maimonides’ Dalât al-Hâirin (Breslau, 1907), and
M. Zobel, Ein anonymer arabischer Commentar (Breslau, 1910). The present author identi-
fied a fuller version of this gloss in the margins to MS London, British Library Or.
1423; see Y. Tzvi Langermann, “The India Office Manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide:
The Earliest Complete Copy in the Judaeo-Arabic Original”, British Library Journal 21
(1995), 66–70, on p. 68.
Yehuda Ratzaby, Yemenite Jewish Literature (Kiryat Ono, 1995), pp. 23–28 [Hebrew];
Y. Tzvi Langermann, Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah (New York,
1996), pp. 269–70; idem, “Saving the Soul by Knowing the Soul: A Medieval Yemeni
Interpretation of Song of Songs”, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 12 (2003),
156 y. tzvi langermann

Zekharyah’s commentary is extant in three different versions. The

most widely diffused is the short version, which is found in six copies. It
is the only version to display the date of composition—(1738 Seleucid
= 1427 C.E.) —and, as we shall argue, it is the earliest of the various
versions. It is found in the following manuscripts:

Holon, Yehudah Levi Nahum 152, 41a–50a.

Jerusalem, Rabbi Kafih, ff. 270a–280a.
New York, JTSA Rab 1216, ff. 53b–61a.
New York, JTSA Rab 1977, ff. 7a–9b.
Berlin Or. Qu. 554 = Steinschneider 92, ff. 19b–49b.
London, BL Or. 2746 = Margoliouth 1101, ff. 1a–12b.

The long version is found in two copies, the second of which is very

Holon, YLN [= Yehudah Levi Nahum] 150, ff. 347b–371b.

Jerusalem, Benayahu T(eimani) 381

Finally, there is a third version, intermediate in length between the first

two, and containing significant variants from both:

Chicago, Spertus College C11, ff. 113b–137a.

There are two main differences between the short and long versions: (1)
The short version covers only the first two parts of the Guide, whereas
the long version addresses part three as well. (2) For some but not all
of the glosses, the long version exhibits substantial accretions. In a few
cases there are significant revisions as well. It should be pointed out,
however, that none of the versions offer comments to all of the chapters
of the Guide. On the other hand, Shar al-Dalāla contains some short
essays inserted into the commentary, usually relating to topics discussed
in the Guide but set aside from the commentary proper.
The selections that we have chosen for discussion here are for the
most part drawn from the long version, utilizing the one early manu-
script, YLN 150. (For occasional references to the short version, we
shall make use of MS Kafih.) We shall not systematically compare the
different versions, with one exception, namely the passages containing
Zekharyah’s different remarks concerning Abū āmid al-Ghazālī. Their
shar` al-dalqla 157

comparison will illustrate one significant difference between the long

and short versions.

Glosses to the Very First Words of the Guide

One of the more striking features of the Yemeni commentaries is the

rich meaning they find in the very first words of the Guide. In fact, it
is no exaggeration to state that some Yemenis found in the very first
word of the dedicatory epistle to Rabbi Yosef, kunta (“you were”), the
essential message of the book. On the face of it, kunta is an auxiliary
verb bearing no ostensible meaning of its own. It is a fact that none
of the translators—with the exception of Rabbi Yosef Kafih, himself
a link (regrettably, the last) in the Yemenite tradition—saw any reason
to translate it. As far as I know, no one has quarrelled with Professor
Pines for omitting it from his translation, which reads as follows:
“My honored pupil Rabbi Joseph, may the Rock guard you, son of Rabbi
Judah, may his repose be in Paradise. When you came to me, having con-
ceived the intention of journeying from the country farthest away in order
to read texts under my guidance, I had a high opinion of you . . .”3
Technically, kunta joins with a uma sha nuka indī (“I had a high opinion
of you”), forming a phrase that can be rendered literally “you were
[such that] your standing was great in my opinion”.
However, in Arabic, verbs in the perfect can also convey wishes,
especially blessings (e.g., a āla Allāh umrahu, “may God lengthen his
life”), and the Yemeni commentators chose to read the phrase in this
way, that is, as a wish.
Putting all of these facts together, we begin to understand the
Yemenite interpretation of kunta, the first word of the Guide, which
is as follows: qīla innahu da a lahu an Allāh yukawwinahu (“It has been
said [or: some say] that he [Maimonides] beseeched on his [ Joseph’s]
behalf, that God bring him into being”).4 Thus, in the final analysis,
the innocuous auxiliary verb is interpreted as Maimonides’ supplica-
tion that his student “actualize” himself. In Maimonidean terms, this
means that the disciple ought to develop his intellect so as to become

Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Shlomo Pines (Chicago
and London, 1963), p. 3.
Kafih 270a; YLN 150, 348a.
158 y. tzvi langermann

a true and actual—not just a potential—human being. Presumably,

the Guide, which was written especially for him, will be of service in
achieving that goal. Zekharya records this as an earlier, anonymous
interpretation, which he endorses. Hence it is justified to regard this
as a shared reading of the Yemenite tradition.
If our interpretation is correct, the author(s) of this commentary
considers Maimonides’ purpose in writing the Guide to be the actualiza-
tion of the human potential of his reader, literally to “bring him into
being”. All of the various and sundry topics discussed in the Guide serve
this central project. If brought to fruition, the result will be eternal
bliss. It is in this vein that we may, perhaps, be able to understand why
Zekharya appends a relatively lengthy gloss to letters n.‘.g. (Nu o Eden
Gan, “his repose is in the Garden of Eden”), the Hebrew formulaic
“R.I.P.” following the name of Joseph’s father Judah. Like kunta, the
“R.I.P.” is a phrase at the very beginning of the Guide behind which no
other commentator found any significant content or intention. Rather
than viewing it as a polite formality, however, Zekharya sees it as a
strong and meaningful indication concerning the reward that may be
expected by those who are successfully “brought into being”.
Even in the short version, Zekharya devotes several lines to a descrip-
tion of the eternal bliss that the soul enjoys once it is relieved of the
bodily distractions and basks unhindered in the efflux of the Active
Intellect.5 This account is expanded considerably, but along the same
general lines, in the long version.6
In sum, then, Zekharya finds that two seemingly trivial phrases in
the opening sentence of the Guide are, in fact, supplications loaded with
meaning. Their content is very similar, and may be combined into a
single thought in this way: may Rabbi Yosef—or every reader of the
Guide—realize his true being, by refining his intellect and developing
thereby so intimate a relationship with the Agent Intellect, that only
the soul’s minimal necessary connection with the body while the person
is still alive prevents the union from becoming permanent. Then, at
death, when the soul detaches itself from the body, no impediments
remain, and the union will be everlasting.
We should add that there is no evidence that the Yemenites had
any knowledge of the historical Joseph ben Judah Ibn Sham ūn. This
ignorance clearly ought to have facilitated their taking Maimonides’

Kafih, 271a.
YLN 150, 348a.
shar` al-dalqla 159

“Joseph” as a tag for the ideal reader of the Guide. Indeed, Zekharya’s
commentary records the express opinion that the “Rabbi Joseph”, the
addressee of the epistle dedicatory, is a fictional character—“verbal stuff-
ing” ( pi umei miltha) introduced by Maimonides, so it appears, solely in
order to engage the reader’s attention.7 However, even with our present,
not insubstantial knowledge of the historical Ibn Sham ūn, I am not
sure that their interpretation is mistaken. Maimonides does give some
hint of disappointment with his disciple; he certainly did not live up
to his promise to let Joseph be the first to see the sections of the Guide
as they were released for circulation.8

Maimonides’ Instructions Obverted?

As for the bulk of the introduction to the Guide, where Maimonides

discusses his motivations for writing the book and the goals that he
wishes to accomplish, and where he gives some hints about his method
of exposition: the most noteworthy aspect of Zekharya’s exegesis is his
flagrant disregard for some of the clearest statements that are found in
the Guide. For example, Maimonides draws a clear distinction between
the Torah and other sacred texts, including the remaining portions
of the Hebrew Bible. Every word in the Torah is loaded with mean-
ing, which the exegete is charged with uncovering. As an example,
Maimonides offers an exacting interpretation of Jacob’s dream of
the ladder. By contrast, other parts of the Hebrew Bible may convey
just a single thought by means of a relatively lengthy narrative. In
that case, one must ferret out the idea, but one should not look for
any special significance in every word. The story of the harlot from
Proverbs 31:10–31 is cited and interpreted by way of example. Clearly,
this distinction follows upon the radical distinction which Maimonides
draws (he had already made the point quite forcefully in his thirteen
principles) between Moses’ prophecy and every other sort of revelation
or inspiration. Maimonides explains:

Kafih, 271 a; YLN 150, 348a; the phrase is used by Maimonides in his commentary
to the Mishnah Bekhorot, chapter 10.
I follow here the interpretation given by D.Z. Baneth to some surviving correspon-
dence between Maimonides and Ibn Sham ūn (cf. Maimonides, Iggerot ha-Rambam, 2nd
edition, Jerusalem 1985, 26ff.); others have interpreted the documents differently, or
even questioned their authenticity. See the very recent discussion in Joseph Yahalom,
“‘Sayeth Tuviyyah ben Ziddkiyya’: The Maqama of Joseph ben Simeon in honor of
Maimonides”, Tarbiz 66 (1997), 543–577 [Hebrew], at pp. 551–2.
160 y. tzvi langermann

Know that the prophetic parables are of two kinds. In some of these
parables each word has a meaning, while in others the parable as a whole
indicates the whole of the intended meaning. In such a parable very
many words are to be found, not every one of which adds something to
the intended meaning. They serve rather to embellish the parable and
to render it more coherent or to conceal further the intended meaning;
hence the speech proceeds in such a way as to accord with everything
required by the parable’s external meaning. Understand this well.9
If there is no cause to examine every turn of phrase in Proverbs, then,
one can safely assume, there is no justification for doing so with regard
to rabbinic aggada. However, this is precisely what Zekharya does to
some phrases within Shir haShirim Rabba 1.8, which Maimonides cites,
and which read as follows:
To what were the words of the Torah to be compared before the advent
of Solomon? To a well the waters of which are at a great depth and
cool, yet no man could drink of them. Now what did one clever man
do? He joined cord with cord and rope with rope and drew them up
and drank. Thus did Solomon say one parable after another and speak
one word after another until he understood the meaning of the words
of the Torah . . . Our rabbis say: A man who loses a sela or a pearl in his
house can find the pearl by lighting a taper worth an issar. In the same
way this parable in itself is worth nothing, but by means of it you can
understand the words of the Torah.10
The point is clear enough: one must make use of simple, even inane
parables and stories in order to clarify the sacred writ. The rabbis
themselves said, “the parable is nothing at all.” Maimonides cites this
aggada in order to justify the efforts of the rabbis to get across the cor-
rect interpretation of scripture by means of fantastic stories. The story
must be taken as an indivisible whole that has a single point to make,
which is its only message; one should not err in trying to find hidden
meanings in the details of the narrative. In brief, Maimonides cites this
midrash as a key prooftext for his own claim that the rabbis themselves
saw in aggada nothing but a useful pedagogic tool. Zekharya offers
brief notes to the entire passage, commenting both upon the aggada
and upon Maimonides’ remarks. He writes:
Cord. A hint (ishāra) at demonstration (burhān). He expressed it by means
of ‘rope’ on account of its strength. Rope. Argument ( ujja). Dispositions,

Guide, trans. Pines, p. 12.
Ibid., 11.
shar` al-dalqla 161

i.e. the natures. Imagination, storing the impressions of the sensibilia

after they are no longer present. Coin (sela). An expression for natural
science. Pearl. An expression for divine science. He lit a wick that costs
but a farthing (issar), turned his mind towards knowledge. A dark house,
the demands of sense and imagination.11
To be sure, Zekharya has not done any damage to the midrash or to
Maimonides’ intent. One could certainly argue that Zekharya’s elabora-
tion upon the midrash is completely justified within the guidelines laid
down by Maimonides. After all, the master listed “the meanings of the
words occurring in them” among the items of knowledge necessary for
the proper understanding of parables. Explicating later on Proverbs
7:6–21 (the parable of the harlot), Maimonides hints at critical if subtle
distinctions between “harlot”, “married harlot”, and “the woman who is
not a harlot”. But Maimonides also calls to our attention many details
of the same story—some them taking up entire verses—that are pure
embellishments that add nothing of substance to the meaning.12
Personal perspective is an important element in any interpretation
of Maimonideana. From my perch it does appear that Zekharya has,
in this instance, disobeyed Maimonides’ instructions. I do not believe
that Maimonides wants us to see any particular meaning in the “sela”,
“rope”, “cord”, etc. that figure in the midrash. He took the parable
to make one simple point, namely that the reader cannot derive any
benefit from the “pearls” of Torah “until . . . he lights a lamp—an act
to which an understanding of the parable corresponds.” Be that as it
may, Zekharya’s diyyuqim reflect—dare I say, anticipate?—a tendency
that would soon dominate rabbinic learning, that is, the urge to find a
precise meaning to every word in midrash.

Rewriting Chapters

Zekharya at times provides a brief recapitulation of the chapter, in

which Maimonides’ presentation is reworked, and subtle but signifi-
cant shifts of emphasis are introduced. A case in point is Guide 1.39,
where Maimonides discusses the polyvalent Hebrew term lev, “heart”.13
Maimonides states that, in addition to its most common meaning as a

MS YLN 150, 350b.
See Guide, trans. Pines, pp. 13–14.
Kafih, 275b; YLN 150, 355a. There are no differences between the two versions.
162 y. tzvi langermann

bodily organ, lev signifies four additional things, which are, in Arabic:
fikra (thought), ray (opinion), irāda (will), and aql (intellect). All five of
these meanings are called asmā , the plural of ism, “name” or “term”.
Thus all are primary senses of the Hebrew word. Each primary sense
can be extended by means of a figurative interpretation (isti āra). Mai-
monides illustrates both the primary and extended meanings by means
of biblical quotations.
The figurative extension of the first sense (the bodily organ called
the heart) is “middle”. Maimonides suggests no figurative meanings for
the next two senses. The last two meanings—will and intellect—are
the most important for Maimonides; the real point of this chapter is to
flesh them out. Both irāda and aql are applied in their primary sense
to God; but the very application of human traits or faculties to God
makes the usage figurative rather than literal. God has no qualities, but,
as the situation dictates, human qualities may be applied figuratively to
Him. Maimonides summarizes: “It is in this sense—I mean that indica-
tive of the intellect—that the term is applied figuratively to God in all
the passages in question, save certain exceptional ones where it is used
sometimes to indicate the will. Every passage should be understood
according to its context.”14
Zekharya presents the matter differently. He lists only one primary
sense for lev, namely, intellect. He ignores even the most common
meaning, that is, heart. More precisely, he states that “this [word, i.e.
lev] is one of terms used for the intellect (hādha min asmā ’l- aql).” This
sense is extended by six figurative applications, which are presented
as three pairs: will and providence (al-irāda wa-l- ināya), powers and
purpose (al-quwa wa-l-ghara ), and supremacy and capability (al-ghalaba
wa-l-isti ā a). One may safely say that Zekharya was not unaware of the
biological sense of lev; nor would he necessarily argue with the other
senses of the word listed by Maimonides in the Guide, such as opinion
and thought. Rather, as it seems to me, Zekharya simply chose to begin
where Maimonides leaves off. He skips over preliminaries that appear
to him (and his readership, one must suppose) superfluous in order to
take up the meaning that holds the most interest. That, of course, is
aql, intellect, the cardinal concept of Yemeni philosophy. If not pre-
cisely identical with God, aql is certainly the most important element
in the conception of the deity. Intellect is the closest analogue within

Guide, trans. Pines, p. 89.
shar` al-dalqla 163

the sphere of human cognizance to the deity. Hence Zekharya’s interest

in identifying “the terms used for the intellect”, as well his claim that
all the other meanings are extensions of this one primary sense.
Like so many other followers of “our master”, Zekharya sensed the
need to reformulate and redirect Maimonides’ interpretative project,
applying it to texts and issues that were of particular interest to him.
Moreover, he does not limit his project to the corpus of traditional
Jewish texts; in one instance he applies it to a statement from a most
unlikely source: the Quran. Part 1, chapter 40 of the Guide discusses
the equivocal term ru a , whose meanings, according to Maimonides,
include “elemental air” (hawā), “wind” (rī ), “animal [or: vital] spirit”
(al-rū al- ayawānī ), “the thing that endures of a human after death”,
and “divine intellectual overflow” (al-fay al- aqlī al-ilāhī ). The Hebrew
term explicated in this chapter has an Arabic homonym, rū , spelled
exactly in the same way. Zekharya’s comments address a problematic
usage of the Arabic word. He writes:
I should like to call your attention to an issue (ma na) that has troubled
me for years. I received questions concerning it, and I gave answers. It
says, ‘they shall ask you about the rū ; then say, [it] is something divine
[min amr Allāh, or: “from God’s command”], and you have been given
but little knowledge’.15
The statement that so troubled Zekharya is, in fact, a nearly literal cita-
tion from the Qur an (Sūrat al-Isrā , 17:85). We learn from this passage
that the verse was well-known among Yemeni Jews, since Zekharya
was questioned more than once about its meaning, presumably by his
Jewish students and colleagues. Nevertheless, Zekharya does not seem
to be aware of its origin in the sacred writ of the Muslims.
Zekharyah’s inadvertent citation of a Qur anic phrase is not very
unusual for a Yemeni-Jewish writer, and it is pertinent here to adduce a
few additional examples. In his commentary to Song of Songs, Zekharya
cites the Qur anic verse describing the blast of the horn that will be
heard on the Day of the Resurrection. He cites it along with a strange
interpretation, and joins it to a twisted quotation from the Hebrew
Bible. Here too, he appears to be totally unaware that he is citing from
the Qur an.16

Kafih, 275b; YLN 150, 355a–b. The two versions are again identical.
Langermann, “Saving the Soul”, 161–2.
164 y. tzvi langermann

At least one work by a Jewish writer from the Yemen, Natanel ben
Fayyumi’s Bustān ’l- Uqūl, quotes liberally from the Quran for explicitly
polemical purposes. He is, as far as I know, the only Yemeni-Jewish
writer to acknowledge the Qur an as his source.17 I rather doubt that
Jews as a rule studied the Qur an; after all, this is forbidden to non-
Muslims.18 It seems likely, however, that they absorbed Qur anic phrases,
including entire verses, from personal contacts with Muslim scholars
as well as from their study of Islamic texts. This should come as no
surprise, given that all facets of Islamicate culture are suffused with the
language and spirituality of the Qur an. Thus verses or phrases from
the Quran, which figure so prominently in Arabic literature, found their
way into Yemeni-Jewish texts, either as anonymous wisdom sayings,
much like Zekharya’s apothegm concerning rū , or as purely literary
turns of phrase.
We conclude this section with two additional examples of Qur anic
citations, both drawn from the same text, one of a set of three published
by Rabbi Yosef Kafih.19 The first is al-rāsikhūn fī ’l- ilm (“those steeped
[or: firmly rooted] in knowledge”, which appears twice in the Qur an,
most famously in Sūrat Āl Imran (3:7).20 Not surprisingly, the anonymous
Yemeni author applies the phrase to the biblical Moses.21
The second citation adduces Deuteronomy 30:2–3 together with
Qur an 21:104 as prooftexts for an emanationist doctrine, namely,
that all creation issues from the First Intellect, to which it eventually
reverts.22 The pairing of the two verses on an equal footing is indeed
striking. There is also an interesting variant to the Qur anic verse, if it
is not a copyist’s error. Instead of displaying nu īduhu wa dan ilaynā, “so
shall we return to it, we take it upon ourselves as a promise (wa d)”,

I cite from the revised edition by Rabbi Yosef Kafih included in the volume
Ma ashavah we-Musar (Kiryat Ono, 1984), chapter six, esp. pp. 110–115.
My late mentor, Rabbi Yosef Kafih, knew the Qur an quite well. He once showed
me the copy that he brought with him from the Yemen, adding that he had had to
hide it—not from his grandfather, Rabbi Yihye, who had no objection to his reading
it, but from his Muslim associates, who would not have tolerated a Jew handling the
Qur an.
Yosef Kafih, “Three Philosophical Treatises by a Yemeni Jew”, Sefunot 16 (1980),
83–189, reprinted in idem, Ketavim [= Collected Papers], ed. Y. Tobi, vol. 1 ( Jerusalem,
1989), 213–319; our page references are to the latter publication.
See, e.g., Helmut Gätje, The Qur ān and its Exegesis (Oxford, 1996), p. 57.
Ketavim, p. 272.
Ibid., 276.
shar` al-dalqla 165

the Judaeo-Arabic text has nu īduhu wa āda ilaynā, “we shall return it,
and it will revert to us”.

Situating Shar al-Dalāla

Let us now turn briefly to the sources that may have been utilized
by Zekharyah in his commentary. It is not our intention here to pro-
vide a full or even partial catalogue of books and authors whom he
cites or may be presumed to have consulted. Rather, our aim is to
delineate the philosophical tradition or traditions within which he felt
most comfortable. Like most of the Yemeni-Jewish intellectuals of his
period, his philosophical posture and his approach to texts fit into the
current known today as Islamic neoplatonism. Yemeni Jews seem to
have become acquainted—and enamored—with this stream of thought
chiefly by way of treatises written or promulgated by the Ismā īlī’s. The
strong connections between Yemeni-Jewish thought and the Ismā īlī’s
are well established and I shall not pursue them here any further.23
I should, however, like to draw attention to another tradition, which
Zekhariah certainly knew of by name at least, and, so it seems, accepted
some of its views: the Ishraqi school of thought. Near the beginning
of part two of the Guide Maimonides mentions “al-māsha iyyun”, that
is, the Peripatetics. In his commentary to this passage, Zekharya asks,
“Who are the Peripatetics?” He replies, “The Perpipatetics are the
people of proof (burhān), but the Ishraqis examine by means of intu-
ition (awwal na r).” The need to mention the Ishraqi alternative when
defining the Peripatetics testifies to the inroads the former had made

Credit must be given to the late and still very much lamented Shlomo Pines for
establishing these connections in his study, “Nathanael b. al-Fayyumi et la théologie
ismaélienne”, Revue de l’histoire juive en Egypte 1 (1947), 5–22, reprinted in idem, Studies in
the History of Jewish Thought, edited by Warren Zev Harvey and Moshe Idel ( Jerusalem,
1997), 317–34. Note, however, that Pines voiced some uncertainty as the provenance of
the Bustān, allowing that it may have originated in Fatimid Egypt as well as the Yemen.
The current unanimous consensus is that the Bustān was written in the Yemen. For
an extensive discussion, see David Blumenthal, The Philosophic Questions and Answers of
Hoter ben Shelomo (Leiden, 1981), pp. 10–24; a few more details are supplied by Y. Tzvi
Langermann, “Cultural Contacts of the Jews of Yemen”, in A. Harrak (ed.), Contacts
between Cultures (CANAS) 33), vol. 1. West Asia and North Africa (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen
Press, 1992), 288–295.
166 y. tzvi langermann

among Zekharya’s audience. His identification of the two schools by

their epistemologies is interesting and, as far as I can judge, correct.24
Closer examination of Zekharya’s commentary, especially the lon-
ger versions, will surely reveal other sources. For example, the lengthy
commentary to the introduction to the Guide contains a disquisition
on the three “special characteristics” (khawā ) of the prophet’s soul.25
These are:
1. The ability to compel matter to obey the prophet’s command—in
other words, the capacity to perform miracles. The “natural” explana-
tion of this power is as follows. It was widely accepted at the time that
matter is subservient to the celestial souls. The human soul is of the
same stuff as the celestial souls; thus, indeed, every human soul has
the capacity to act upon matter. For most people, however, this ability
does not extend beyond the ability of their souls to govern their own
bodies. The prophet’s soul, however, being much more similar in its
substance to the celestial souls, has by the same token a greater ability
to influence matter, which ranges beyond the prophet’s own body.
2. The ability to arrive at sound conclusions quickly. Here too the
basic process is entirely natural—reasoning from an observed phenom-
enon to a true generality. The example given takes in both physics and
cosmology: noting that the stone falls rather than rises, the observer
deduces that there are fixed directions of up and down. Therefore,
the cosmos must have a spherical shape, with the earth at the center
and the heavens at the circumference. It is the agility and surety of the
deduction which makes this a karāma.26
3. An exceedingly powerful imagination that enables visualizations
of things pertaining to the hidden realm (al-ghayb) even in a waking
state. The prophet hears and sees in this state much as others do in
their sleep.
Zekharya sums up with the remark that the prophet may possess only
one or two of these special characteristics; only the greatest prophet
will have all three.

Concerning intuition in Ishraqi thought, see Hossein Ziai, Knowledge and Illumination
(Atlanta, 1990); see also Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Ibn Kammūna and the ‘New Wisdom’
of the Thirteenth Century”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 15 (2005), 277–327.
YLN 150, 348b–349a.
This talent is virtually indistinguishable from ads (intuition); see Langermann,
“New Wisdom”.
shar` al-dalqla 167

The immediate source for this essay is without a doubt Abū āmid
al-Ghazālī’s Maqā id al-Falāsifa. Zekharya’s essay is built out of word-
for-word extracts from al-Ghazālī’s, whose treatment is considerably
longer.27 A full discussion of al-Ghazālī’s account would take us off
course.28 Suffice it to note that in his very orderly presentation, al-
Ghazālī matches each of these special abilities to a specific aspect of the
soul. The ability to act upon matter depends on the substance ( jawhar)
of the prophet’s soul. Agility of thought derives from the potency of
the speculative faculty (al-quwwa al-na ariyya), while the ability to receive
communications from beyond is due to the strength of the imaginative
faculty (al-quwwa al-mutakhayyila).
The three khawā of the prophetic soul was a key topos within a
broader theory of natural prophecy that was very widely held in the
Islamic east. I call it “natural” because one of the key aims was to
show that the three chief characteristics of the prophet—the ability to
perform miracles, to arrive quickly at sound conclusions, and to receive
messages from beyond this world—are all in fact natural, human capa-
bilities, which the prophet possesses in their most extreme form. Vari-
ants of this theory are also found, inter alia, in Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s
al-Mabā ith al-Mashriqiyya, a text known to Yemeni Jews—and in two
writings of Sa d bin Man ūr Ibn Kammūna as well.29 The presentation
in Ibn Kammūna’s Tanqī al-Ab āth is closest to that of al-Ghazālī. The
same author’s Risāla fī ’l- ikma lists them in a different order—quick-
wittedness, control over matter, and visualizing angels; the discussion
and examples also differ from al-Ghazālī. Fakhr al-Dīn also changes
the order and the presentation.

See the end of the section on natural science (al-tabī iyyāt), in Maqāsid al-Falāsifa,
ed. Muhammad Sabrī Kurdī, second printing (Cairo, 1936), part 3, pp. 71–76.
Al-Ghazālī presents here of course his own recapitulation of Ibn Sīnā’s opinion,
not all of which he will ultimately reject. See Frank Griffel, “Al-Ghazālī’s Concept of
Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicennian Psychology into Aš arite Theology”, Arabic
Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004), 101–144, especially pp. 114–115, and also note 46 for
additional bibliography on Ibn Sīnā.
Al-Mabāhith al-Mashriqiyya, ed. Muhammad al-Baghdādī, Beirut, 1990, vol. 2,
p. 556; Ibn Kammūna, Tanqīh al-Abhāth, edited by Moshe Perlmann under the title
Examination of the Inquiries into the Three Faiths (Berkeley, 1967), p. 3 (cf. Perlmann’s
annotated English translation, Ibn Kammūna’s Examination of the Three Faiths. A Thirteenth
Century Essay in Comparative Study of Religion, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1971); Ibn Kammūna,
al-Risāla fī ’l- ikma, MS Istanbul, Ayasofya 2447, ff. 76b–77a.
168 y. tzvi langermann

Shift in (Public) Posture towards al-Ghazālī

We conclude this section with an interesting and instructive case of

a shift in Zekharya’s public posture towards an acknowledged source.
The passages are found in his commentaries to Guide II, 29, where
Maimonides deliberates upon the proper interpretation of the Talmudic
statement (Rosh ha-Shanah 31a), “The world lasts six thousand years,
and one thousand years it is a waste.” The short version of his com-
mentary states as follows:
Know—may God support you!—that the Talmudic sages occupied them-
selves with this question. They could offer only this brief reply, ‘R. Yosi
said, six corners ( pinot) of the body.’ Thus the remark tended towards
[the science of ] generation and corruption. I continued to be perplexed
by this remark until I found a statement by the venerable and honorable
sheikh, the person who propounded the sciences after their ruin, the most
awesome philosopher and most honorable propagator (mufīd ), our lord
and master Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Ghazali, known as al-Tusi, may
God sanctify his spirit in paradise (al-janna) and in the green fields; he
shall fear not death nor be cut off from life. He said: this appertains to
the human. He has states: infancy, childhood, adolescence, early man-
hood, manhood, middle age, and old age.
Zekharya’s text of the Talmud has a passage not found in our edi-
tions, that is, the short statement: “R. Yosi said, six corners (pinot) of
the body.” Zekharya totally ignores Maimonides’ deliberations, which
focus upon the purported extinction of the universe after six thousand
years. Yet his own version of the Talmudic text suggests that the state-
ment does relate to physics—if not to time, then to space. Nonetheless,
Zekharya’s perplexity was relieved only when he came across a state-
ment from al-Ghazālī concerning human biology. I have not been able
to trace this reference in any of the writings produced by or ascribed
to al-Ghazālī, but this is not of major concern here. As a matter of
fact, the notion of the seven ages of man was very widespread, and
Zekharya—particularly if he was well-versed in the medical literature,
as we might expect—could have come across it in any number of
places.30 The key point here is that Zekharya acknowledges al-Ghazālī
as his source, and he heaps upon him lavish phrase as well as some
standard Islamic blessings.

See, e.g., M.L. West, “The Cosmology of ‘Hippocrates’, De Hebdomadibus”, Classical
Quarterly, n.s. 21 (1971), 365–88, at pp. 376–7.
shar` al-dalqla 169

In the long version of his commentary Zekharya offers two expla-

nations of the same Talmudic dictum. The first replicates in slightly
different wording the explanation given in the short version. Curiously,
however, there is no reference at all to al-Ghazālī. It reads:
He said in chapter 29, ‘The world lasts six thousand years, and one
thousand years it is a waste.’ What does it mean? The answer: I think
that this sage of blessed memory did not intend by saying ‘world’ any-
thing but man, since he is a world [unto himself]. The meaning of this
statement accords with what has been clarified in natural science, where
it has been stated that man undergoes seven transitions (tanaqullāt) in his
life. That is to say, he is at first called an infant, then a child, then an
adolescent, then a young man, then a man, then middle aged, then an
old man. When we consider all of these stages, we find that in six of
them the condition of the body is very good, and it continues to love its
endurance in this world. However, in the seventh, which is the state of
old age and senility, the body is wasted, and for the remainder of its life
it is always discomforted and suffering. As it says, ‘Your soul [life] has
become a burden for you.’ Thus it is from the aspect of the body.31
As we saw above, in the short version Zekharya confesses that his per-
plexity concerning the Talmudic statement was relieved only when he
came across the remarks of al-Ghazālī. In the longer version, Zekharya
makes no mention of his disquiet; in matter of fact fashion he reports
the teaching of “natural science” which clarify the matter. Yet this
teaching conveys the very same idea attributed to al-Ghazālī in the
shorter version. Hence it seems quite evident that the shorter version
is the earlier, and that the name of al-Ghazālī has been deliberately
suppressed in the later, longer version. Why would Zekharya do such
a thing? Two possibilities come to mind. The first is that Zekharya
learned—as we pointed out above—that the notion of the seven tran-
sitions is widespread and ancient, and that he had been a bit hasty in
heaping praise upon al-Ghazālī for relaying this well-known morsel of
information. This explanation would itself imply that the first com-
mentary was written at a very early stage of his career, which on the
face of it seems unlikely—given, e.g., the fact that he had already been
teaching for some time before agreeing to the request of his student
to write the commentary.
The second possibility, and the one that I favor, is that Zekharya was
criticized by elements within the Jewish community for his ebullient

YLN 150, 360b–361a.
170 y. tzvi langermann

praise of a Muslim scholar. I cannot present any solid evidence that

Zekharya, or any other Yemenite Jew of the period, was excoriated for
drawing upon the writings and ideas of non-Jews. However, there is clear
evidence of a powerful opposition to intellectualism and a concomitant
demand to rely solely upon taqlīd, blind adhesion to tradition.32 It is
not unreasonable to suppose that members of this faction would not
have looked kindly upon Zekharya’s eulogy for al-Ghazālī. Although
he refused to abandon science and philosophy altogether, Zekharya
may have felt it to be convenient to omit expressions of admiration
for Muslim thinkers.

Yemeni Variants to the Text of the Dalāla

In the final section of this paper we will take up the question of the
text of the Dalāla; does the Judaeo-Arabic version that serves as the
basis for Zekharya’s commentary differ in any significant way from
the textus receptus? Before answering that, we first ask, what is the textus
receptus? For the Hebrew Moreh, this is clearly the version that Samuel
Ibn Tibbon—after much effort, including some correspondence with
Maimonides himself, and even some apparently unintentional interven-
tion on his part—set before his readers.33 Whether or not Ibn Tibbon’s
translation would have received Maimonides’ full seal of approval, Ibn
Tibbon’s Moreh, rather than Maimonides’ original Dalāla, is the book
that has impacted so strongly upon Jewish thinkers ever since.34

Y. Tzvi Langermann, “The Debate between the Philosopher and the Mutakal-
lim”, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 60 (1994), 189–240, esp. pp.
The translations of Ibn Tibbon and others are concisely described by Hebert
A. Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and his Works (Oxford, 2005), pp. 427–428;
for a more extensive discussion, see the appendix to Michael Schwartz’s new Hebrew
translation of the Guide, Moreh Nevukhim li-Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv,
2002), vol. 2, 742–747. Warren Zev Harvey calls attention to a critical emendation
of Ibn Tibbon to Guide 2:24 in his “Maimonides’ First Commandment, Physics, and
Doubt”, in Hazon Nahum (Norman Lamm Festschrift) (New York, 1997), 155–159, on
pp. 155–156.
The readership of the rival translation of al-Harizi was far, far less, though some
important thinkers, such as Moses Nahmanides, may have relied upon it. There is
now only one complete copy of al-Harizi’s version extant, and this statistic accurately
reflects its minimal impact. Shem Tov ibn Falquera is perhaps the most important of
the small group of European Jews who studied the Dalāla in the original. Nonethe-
less, the awesome influence of the Moreh, the controversies and continuations, were
responses to Ibn Tibbon’s Moreh.
shar` al-dalqla 171

We still do not stand upon entirely sure ground with regard to

the textus receptus of the Dalāla. The text has been edited twice, first
by Munk-Joel, then by Rabbi Qafih. However, not all of the extant
manuscripts have been collated.35 We cannot say at present whether
the text displayed by any of the editors was the text that was, in all
details, taken to be authoritative by the Dalāla’s readers, at least the
greater part of them, over the generations.
We can, however, say something about how the text that served as
the basis for Zekharya’s commentary differs from the editions presently
available. Moreover, as we shall see, the variants are not necessarily a
quirk; we will show that, at least in the case to be discussed presently,
there existed a tradition of interpretation of the variant, indicating
that this particular reading—which differs significantly from the edi-
tions accepted today—was the text taken by many in the Yemen to be
authoritative. This particular variant was duly recorded by Rabbi Qafih
in his apparatus; however, as we just indicated it was taken by Zekharya
and some influential predecessors to be the true and correct text. For
reasons that shall be immediately apparent, the natural inclination of
any scholar would be to regard this variant as a contamination, and to
relegate it to the apparatus, as did Rabbi Qafih; however, the Guide is
in some ways such an elusive work that even on this point one cannot
be entirely sure.
The variant belongs to one of the most crucial passages in the Dalāla:
Maimonides’ description of the seven causes of contradiction that are
found in some books, and his announcement that he shall deliberately
employ some of these in the Guide. According to the universally accepted
version of the Guide, Maimonides discloses that he shall employ items
five and seven on his list. The fifth cause “arises from the necessity
of teaching”, and it may be restated as follows. A teacher of difficult
subjects necessarily oversimplifies at first, “using any means that occur
to him or gross speculation” in order to get his point across. Only later,
“in the appropriate place” will the same matter be “stated in exact
terms and explained as it truly is”. The seventh cause is the necessity
to conceal when speaking about “very obscure matters”. The nature
of the subject being taught is such that the discussion must proceed

For further discussion and bibliography, see Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Supplemen-
tary List of Manuscripts and Fragments of Dalalat al-Ha irin”, Maimonidean Studies, 4
(2000), 31–37.
172 y. tzvi langermann

in one place on the basis of a certain premise, and in another place

on the basis of a different premise that contradicts the first. “In such
cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the
author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by some means.”36
In between these two Maimonides has a sixth cause of contradiction.
I cite from the translation of Shlomo Pines:
The sixth cause. The contradiction is concealed and becomes evident
only after many premises. The greater the number of premises needed
to make the contradiction evident, the more concealed it is. It thus may
escape the author, who thinks there is no contradiction between his two
original propositions. But if each proposition is considered separately—a
true premise being joined to it and the necessary conclusion drawn—,
after many syllogisms the outcome of the matter will be that the two
final conclusions are contradictory or contrary to each other. That is the
kind of thing that escapes the attention of scholars who write books. If,
however, the two original propositions are evidently contradictory, but
the author has simply forgotten the first when writing down the second
in another part of his compilation, this is a very great weakness, and
that man should not be reckoned among those whose speeches deserve
Briefly, the sixth cause relates not to statements that contradict each
other, but to arguments that lead to contradictory conclusions. If the
arguments are long and involved, the author may be forgiven for not
being aware of the ultimate contradiction. However, if the arguments
are relatively simple, the author is guilty of a serious error, and his
writings do not deserve consideration.
The only scholar thus far to pay any notice at all to the variant in
which Maimonides announces that he shall make use of the sixth cause
as well is Herbert Davidson. (In fact, it was he who called my attention
to it, and I thank him for this.) Davidson accounts for this contamina-
tion of the Dalāla as follows:
Somebody in the Yemen must have been annoyed by opinions Maimonides
advanced which the unknown person deemed unacceptable as well as by
Maimonides’ self-assurance in implying that the Guide contains no errors
of reasoning. He annotated his copy of the book to read that, despite
what Maimonides thought, the book may indeed contain inconsistencies
of the sixth sort. A scribe incorporated the caustic annotation into the

The citations from the Guide are taken from the translation of Shlomo Pines,
pp. 17–18.
Ibid., 18.
shar` al-dalqla 173

text, and it was then copied by other scribes. Thanks to the annotator and
the Yemeni scribes, users of the Yemeni manuscripts find Maimonides
incongruously advising readers of the Guide to be on their guard for
mistakes in his reasoning.38
In his commentary Zekharyah identifies the places in the Guide where
contradictions illustrating each of the three “causes” appear.39 To be
more precise, he does not say that he is merely offering examples. On
the face of it he may be saying that he is offering a complete list of
the contradictions; but this is not certain. The fifth and seventh causes,
loci classici for explorations into Maimonides’ supposed esotericism, will
not concern us here.
But what about the sixth “cause”? Where is Maimonides guilty of
sloppy reasoning, and admitting as much? Zekharyah glosses the variant
(which, as we have stressed, he treats as textus receptus, not a variant):
“And on account of the sixth. It is on account of “the intellect, the
intellectually cognizing subject and the intellectually cognizing object
and the premises of the philosophers.”
It is not clear at this point whether he has in mind one or two pas-
sages. “The intellect, the intellectually cognizing subject and the intel-
lectually cognizing object” is without doubt a reference to part one,
chapter 68. What about “the premises of the philosophers”? Presum-
ably this refers to the introduction to part two, where Maimonides lists
some twenty-five premises which form the basis of “philosophy”. Does
Zekharya mean to say that I, 68, contradicts one or more of the 25
premises? Presumably, in line with the definition of the sixth “cause”,
this contradiction would become apparent only after some chain of
reasoning starting from the premises led to a blatant contradiction of
the teaching of I, 68. Alternatively, the “premises of the philosophers”
may be a second example. In that case, both I, 68, and the introduc-
tory premises to part II each contain arguments which, when taken to
their final conclusions, will prove to be contradictory.
Zekharya’s glosses to the passages in question—I, 68 and the intro-
duction to part II—unfortunately are of no help. Curiously enough,
however, the late Professor Shlomo Pines, in his masterful “Translator’s
Introduction” on the sources of the Guide, called attention to some

Herbert A. Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and his Works (Oxford, 2005),
p. 389.
MS YLN 150, f. 351a.
174 y. tzvi langermann

problems in connection with Guide I, 68, which are very suggestive in

this connection. Pines was not aware of the Yemeni variant, nor had
he any inkling of the Yemeni commentaries identifying the locus of the
contradiction of the sixth type. Yet his analysis led him to suggest that
the chapter in question most probably had within it a contradiction of
“the didactic type”, that is, the fifth “cause”; but also, when examined
more closely, it may betray some sloppy thinking.
The evident contradiction is due to the fact that the proclamation
of the identity of the subject, object, and act of intellectual cognition
is said to apply to God and human alike. This positive remark con-
cerning divine cognition flies in the face of Maimonides’ proclaimed
negative theology. Moreover, the banal example given for human cog-
nition, which is the act of cognizing a piece of wood, along with the
analogy just mentioned between divine and human cognition, implies
that God’s cognition is not limited to His own essence, if the latter is
construed as being something other than the forms that are the sub-
ject of human cognition. If, however, God does cognize those forms,
he must be identical with them—something perilously close to what
Spinoza taught. Pines concludes:
I should add that, while it is pretty clear that these are the evident conse-
quences of Maimonides’ view, it may be argued that he may have been
guilty of the inconsistency of not having drawn these conclusions. In this
particular case this particular point of view would amount to a grave
and, in my opinion, very implausible accusation of muddle headedness
directed against Maimonides.40
Guide I, 68 has recently been the subject of much intense investigation.41
The seemingly contradictory stances taken in that same chapter call
for investigation, even if one does not wish to go so far as to accuse
Maimonides of committing here a sixth “cause”. The present writer is
of the opinion that the answer must be sought in the polemical nature
of the chapter; specifically, Maimonides’ strongly felt urge to answer the
“ignoramuses . . . who hasten to refute us”.42 I believe that Abū -Barakāt
al-Baghdādī is the target, or one of the targets, of that barb. A full

Guide, trans. Pines, p. xcviii.
See Josef Stern, “Maimonides on the Growth of Knowledge and limitations of
the Intellect”, in Tony Lévy and Roshdi Rashid, eds., Maimonide, philosophe et savant
(1138–1204) (Leuven, 2004), 143–191.
Ibid., 163.
shar` al-dalqla 175

discussion of this, however, would take us far beyond Zekharya’s com-

mentary, and must be deferred to some other occasion.43


Al-Ghazālī, Maqāsid al-Falāsifa, ed. Muhammad Sabrī Kurdī, second printing (Cairo,
Al-Rāzī, Fakhr al-Dīn, Al-Mabāhith al-Mashriqiyya, ed. Muhammad al-Baghdādī (Beirut,
Blumenthal, David, The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo (Leiden,
Davidson, H.A., Moses Maimonides: The Man and his Works (Oxford, 2005).
Elman, Y. and Gurock, J.S. (eds), Hazon Nahum: Studies in Jewish Law, Thought, and History
Presented to D. Norman Lamm (New York, 1997).
Gätje, Helmut, The Qur ān and its Exegesis (Oxford, 1996).
Griffel, Frank, “Al-Ghazālī’s Concept of Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicennian
Psychology into Aš arite Theology”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004).
Harvey, W.Z., “Maimonides’ First Commandment, Physics, and Doubt”, in Elman
and Gurock (eds), 155–159.
Horn, I., Ein anonymer arabischer Commentar aus dem XV Jahrhundert zu Maimonides’ Dalât
al-Hâirin (Breslau, 1907).
Ibn Kammūna, al-Risāla fī ’l-hikma, MS Istanbul, Ayasofya 2447.
——, Ibn Kammūna’s Examination of the Three Faiths. A Thirteenth Century Essay in Comparative
Study of Religion, trans. M. Perlmann (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1971).
——, Tanqīh al-Abhāth, edited by Moshe Perlmann under the title Examination of the
Inquiries into the Three Faiths (Berkeley, 1967).
Kafih, Yosef, “Three Philosophical Treatises by a Yemeni Jew”, Sefunot 16 (1980),
83–189, reprinted in idem, Ketavim [= Collected Papers], ed. Y. Tobi, vol. 1 ( Jerusalem,
1989), 213–319.
Langermann, Y. Tzvi “Saving the Soul by Knowing the Soul: A Medieval Yemeni
Interpretation of Song of Songs”, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 12 (2003),
——, Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah, (New York, 1996).
——, “Cultural Contacts of the Jews of Yemen”, in A. Harrak (ed.), Contacts between
Cultures (CANAS) 33), vol. 1. West Asia and North Africa (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen
Press, 1992), 288–295.
——, “Ibn Kammūna and the ‘New Wisdom’ of the Thirteenth Century”, Arabic
Sciences and Philosophy 15 (2005), 277–327.
——, “Supplementary List of Manuscripts and Fragments of Dalalat al-Ha irin”, Mai-
monidean Studies, 4 (2000), 31–37.
——, “The India Office Manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide: The Earliest Complete
Copy in the Judaeo-Arabic Original”, British Library Journal 21 (1995), 66–70.
——, “The Debate between the Philosopher and the Mutakallim”, Proceedings of the
American Academy for Jewish Research 60 (1994), 189–240.
Maimonides, Iggerot ha-Rambam, ed. D.Z. Baneth, 2nd edition ( Jerusalem, 1985).

I did present my theory at the meeting of Société International pour l’Etude de
la Philosophie Médiévale (SIEPM), at Porto, August, 2002, it will form one of the
chapters in the book promised at the beginning of this essay.
176 y. tzvi langermann

——, Moreh Nevukhim. Hebrew translation from the Arabic with annotations, appendices
and indices by Michael Schwartz, vols. 1–2 (Tel Aviv, 2002).
——, The Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Shlomo Pines (Chicago and London,
Pines, Shlomo, “Nathanael b. al-Fayyumi et la théologie ismaélienne”, Revue de l’histoire
juive en Egypte 1 (1947), 5–22, reprinted in Warren Zev Harvey and Moshe Idel, eds,
Studies in the History of Jewish Thought ( Jerusalem, 1997), 317–34.
Ratzaby, Yehuda, Yemenite Jewish Literature [Hebrew] (Kiryat Ono, 1995).
Stern, Josef, “Maimonides on the Growth of Knowledge and limitations of the Intel-
lect”, in Lévy, T. and R. Rashid (eds), Maimonide, philosophe et savant (1138–1204)
(Leuven, 2004).
West, M.L., “The Cosmology of ‘Hippocrates’, De Hebdomadibus”, Classical Quarterly,
21 (1971), 365–88.
Yahalom, Joseph, “ ‘Sayeth Tuviyyah ben Ziddkiyya’: The Maqama of Joseph ben
Simeon in honor of Maimonides [Hebrew]”, Tarbiz 66 (1997), 543–577.
Ziai, Hossein, Knowledge and Illumination (Atlanta, 1990).
Zobel, M., Ein anonymer arabischer Commentar (Breslau, 1910).

Carlos Fraenkel

In several respects, The Guide of the Perplexed stood at the center of

Samuel ibn Tibbon’s philosophical work. Although he is best known as
the Guide’s translator, the translation was only one aspect of his compre-
hensive effort to disseminate Maimonides’ thought. Ibn Tibbon’s role
in this process is best described as that of a mediator between cultures
who paved the way for the reception of Maimonides’ writings in the
Jewish communities of Christian Europe, that is, in a cultural setting
very different from the Judeo-Arabic context in which they had been
composed.2 We can perhaps better appreciate the scope of Ibn Tib-
bon’s contribution if we imagine a contemporary Israeli thinker who
sets out to introduce the work of Emanuel Levinas to yeshiva students
in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox neighborhood, Me ah She arim. Were he
merely to translate Levinas into Hebrew or Yiddish, he would most
certainly fail to achieve his objective. In addition to the translation, he
would have to clarify Levinas’ philosophical terminology, explain what
phenomenology means in the work of Husserl and Heidegger which

For a more comprehensive treatment of the issues discussed in this article, see my
Hebrew book, From Maimonides to Samuel Ibn Tibbon: The Transformation of the Dalālat
al- ā irīn into the Moreh ha-Nevukhim, Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes
Press, 2007. On Ibn Tibbon, see also also J. Robinson’s recent comprehensive study,
Philosophy and Exegesis in Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, doctoral disserta-
tion, Harvard University, 2002. A. Ravitzky laid the groundwork for research on Ibn
Tibbon in his doctoral dissertation, The Teachings of R. Zerahyah b. Isaac b. Shealtiel Hen
and Maimonidean-Tibbonian Philosophy in the Thirteenth Century, Jerusalem, 1978 [Hebrew],
and in a number of more recent articles, of which the most important for my pres-
ent purpose is “R. Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of
the Perplexed,” Daat 10 (1983), pp. 19–46 [Hebrew]. Quotations from the Guide of the
Perplexed will normally follow S. Pines’ Eng. trans. (Chicago and London: University of
Chicago Press, 1963) which I will sometimes modify on the basis of the Arabic (Dalālat
al- ā irīn, ed. S. Munk and Y. Yoel, Jerusalem, 1931) or on the basis of Ibn Tibbon’s
Hebrew trans. (Moreh ha-Nevukhim, ed. Y. Even Shmuel, Jerusalem, 1987).
Cf. also Y. Tzvi Langermann, “A New Source for Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Translation
of the Guide of the Perplexed and his Glosses on it,” Peamim 72 (1997), p. 51 [Hebrew].
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served as the point of departure for Levinas’ thought, and interpret

his ideas in light of the intellectual debates in France in which he took
part. In other words, the mediator must create the conditions allowing
for Levinas’ work to be understood in a cultural context that has few
things in common with the one in which it took shape. In a similar way
one can describe Ibn Tibbon’s task at the beginning of the thirteenth
century. The challenge he faced was to render intelligible a book, deeply
rooted in the tradition of Greco-Arabic philosophy, to the sages of
southern France, who represented an audience by and large unfamiliar
with the notions and sources of this tradition.3 Ibn Tibbon alludes to
this situation in the preface to his translation of the Guide, describing it
as a work that “encompasses many sublime sciences, hidden from the
eyes of most, if not all, of our people in this part of the world, for they
do not devote themselves [to their study], and [these sciences] are not
found amongst them” (118). Similar comments appear in the preface
to Perush ha-Millim ha-Zarot [Explanation of Unusual Terms], where Ibn
Tibbon explains that he composed the philosophical-scientific glossary
for the Guide because of “the shortcomings of our language and the
absence of works on the demonstrative sciences among our people,”
a situation in which he fears “most readers [. . .] will not understand”
his translation.4 It is not surprising, therefore, that Ibn Tibbon, in addi-
tion to translating the Guide, also explained its technical terminology,
interpreted it, and became its first teacher. In doing so, he laid the
basis for the reception of the Guide as the foundational work of Jewish
philosophy from the beginning of the thirteenth century to Spinoza,
who in important ways was indebted to the medieval Maimonidean
tradition, but also criticized some of its fundamental presuppositions.5

See the account of Maimonides’ sources in S. Pines’ introduction to his English
translation of the Guide (above, no. 1), pp. lvii–cxxxiv.
Ed. by Y. Even Shmuel in his edition of the Guide mentioned above (no. 1), p. 11
[henceforth: PMZ ]. Compare already the comments of Ibn Tibbon’s father, Judah,
in his “Preface” to the Heb. trans. of Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart, ed.
A. Zifroni, Jerusalem, 1927–28, p. 2. Ibn Tibbon’s situation was similar to that of other
translators who found themselves in between two cultures, such as Cicero, Is āq b.
unayn, or Gerard of Cremona. See, for example, the remarks of Cicero, like Ibn
Tibbon a philosopher, translator, and cultural mediator, in De Natura Deorum I, 4 and
De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum I, 2–4.
Spinoza studied the Guide in the Venice edition (1551) of Ibn Tibbon’s translation
that included the traditional medieval commentaries. See the description of that edi-
tion in J.I. Dienstag, “Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed: A Bibliography of Editions
and Translations,” in R. Dan ed., Occident and Orient, Budapest and Leiden, 1988,
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 179

In Ibn Tibbon’s translation, the Guide became one of the most widely
read Jewish texts as is clear from the number of extant manuscripts
of the translation, as well as the number of commentaries written
on it.6 In a sense, Ibn Tibbon himself was the first in a long series of
commentators, for in the course of his ongoing work on the Guide he
added numerous glosses to the text.7 Through the examination of 145
manuscripts of the translation which have been collected at the Institute
of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem, I found about one
hundred glosses attributed to him. These glosses not only illustrate the
different aspects of Ibn Tibbon’s encounter with the Guide; they also
bear witness to the complex process of transmitting Maimonides’ work
from one cultural context to another.8 In sum, if the Dalālat al- ā irīn
was the gate through which science and philosophy were able to enter
and become an important component of Jewish culture, its transforma-
tion into the Moreh ha-Nevukhim provided the hinge without which this
gate would have remained shut.9 The role Ibn Tibbon played is well

pp. 97–98. On Spinoza as Maimonides’ last medieval disciple, see W.Z. Harvey, “A
Portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 19 (1981),
pp. 151–172.
Until now, 145 manuscripts have been collected at the Institute of Microfilmed
Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem. They represent about ninety percent of all extant
manuscripts. C. Sirat estimates that only about five percent of the manuscripts copied
in the Middle Ages were preserved; see her “Les manuscrits en caractères hébraïques:
Réalités d’hier et histoire d’aujourd’hui”, Scrittura e Civilita 10 (1986), pp. 239–288.
The Guide first appeared in print in 1480; on that edition and its successors, see Dien-
stag, “Editions” (above, no. 5). The Guide’s circulation far exceeded that of any other
Hebrew composition on science or philosophy; cf. G. Freudenthal, “La Réception des
Sciences gréco-arabes dans les Communautés Juives de la France Méridionale,” Revue
des études juives 152 (1993), p. 93. With regard to the commentaries on the Guide, see
M. Steinschneider’s long list, who notes that most of them explain Ibn Tibbon’s trans-
lation: “Die hebräischen Commentare zum ‘Führer’ des Maimonides,” in A. Freiman
and M. Hildesheimer, eds., Festschrift zum Siebzigsten Geburstage A. Berliners, Frankfurt
a. M., 1903, pp. 345–363. His list was supplemented by J. Dienstag, “Maimonides’
Guide of the Perplexed: A Bibliography of Commentaries and Annotations,” in Z. Falk,
ed., Gevurot ha-Romah, Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 207–237. Compare also I. Husik’s claim
that Jewish thought after the period of Maimonides “is in the nature of a commentary
on Maimonides whether avowedly or not” (A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy,
Philadelphia, 1916, p. 312).
Cf. already Steinschneider, “Commentare” (above, no. 6), p. 347.
For an edition of Ibn Tibbon’s glosses, see Fraenkel, From Maimonides to Samuel ibn
Tibbon (above, no. 1).
I refer here only to the extent of the influence of Maimonides’ writings. Interpre-
tations of Judaism as a philosophical religion existed, of course, earlier, for example
in the work of Philo of Alexandria in Antiquity and in that of Abraham ibn Daud
in medieval Spain. But their writings, in contrast to those of Maimonides, left no
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summarized in a letter to Maimonides from Jonathan ha-Kohen, the

leader of the Jewish community in Lunel, where Ibn Tibbon was born
and carried out the Guide’s translation: “The book [i.e., the Guide] was
given to those who would not have known a book if our Creator had
not brought before us the son of a wise man, knowledgeable in every
science, who was taught by the master, his father, Arabic literature and
Arabic language.”10
But it was not only in the history of Jewish thought that Ibn Tib-
bon played a central role; he also opened the Hebrew chapter in the
history of Western philosophy. After flourishing in Greek Antiquity,
and then in the Muslim world in the early medieval period, philosophi-
cal inquiry was renewed in parallel in Hebrew and Latin in the later
Middle Ages.11 Ibn Tibbon was not the first to introduce works, which,
broadly speaking, may be characterized as philosophical, into the Jewish
communities of Christian Europe, but the translation and dissemina-
tion of Maimonides’ philosophical writings represent a turning point
in the process.12 For one thing, these writings, and especially the Guide,
provided a systematic justification for the study of philosophy within
a religious culture. Moreover, they directed the reader in particular to
the falsafa tradition, that is, to the current in Arabic thought that, in the
wake of al-Fārābī and his disciples, overcame competing philosophical
systems and became the worldview of most intellectuals in the Muslim
world.13 These two factors transformed the process, which had begun as

significant mark on Jewish culture. On the similarities between Philo’s and Ibn Daud’s
philosophical projects and that of Maimonides, see below, no. 66.
Iggeret le-Rambam [Letter to Maimonides], published by S.A. Wertheimer in Ginze
Yerushalayim, vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1896, p. 34.
I am referring to the principal stations in the development of the Western tradi-
tion; there are, of course, additional chapters in Latin, Syriac, and Persian.
The cultural renewal in southern France—or “Provence,” as the region was called
in the Middle Ages—had already begun in the time of Samuel ibn Tibbon’s father,
Judah ibn Tibbon, to whom Samuel refers as “the father of the translators” in his
Preface to the Guide’s translation (119). On the developments in southern France and
their causes, see I. Twersky, Rabad of Posquières, Cambridge, MA, 1962, pp. 19–29; id.,
“Aspects of Social and Cultural History of Provencal Jewry,” Journal of World History 11
(1968), pp. 185–207; M.H. Vicaire and B. Blumenkranz, Juifs et Judaisme de Languedoc,
Toulouse, 1977; B. Septimus, Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition, Cambridge MA, 1982;
B. Benedict, The Torah Center in Provence, Jerusalem, 1985 [Hebrew]; Freudenthal, “La
Réception” (above, no. 6); Robinson, Commentary on Ecclesiastes (above, no. 1), chapter
1. It should be noted that before the dissemination of the Guide, the efforts were quite
limited and focused on disseminating religious thought of the sort translated by Judah
Ibn Tibbon; cf. Freudenthal, “La Réception” (above, no. 6), p. 43.
Cf. D. Gutas’ account of the rise of the “ideology of rationalism” during the
ninth century, in his Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 181

a cultural renewal in Southern France more than a generation before

Ibn Tibbon, into an intellectual revolution by whose end a substantial
part of Greco-Arabic philosophy and science had been translated into
Hebrew and had become an important frame of reference for many
educated Jews.14
* * *
In this paper I will discuss a number of characteristic aspects of Ibn
Tibbon’s relationship to Maimonides. I begin with (1) Maimonides’
interpretation of Judaism as a philosophical religion, the dissemina-
tion of which in my view was the goal of Ibn Tibbon’s work as a
mediator between cultures. Next I discuss (2) how Ibn Tibbon presents
himself and his work in relation to Maimonides and in relation to
the philosophical-exegetical project that underlies the Guide. Then I
explain (3) the relationship between the interpretation of Judaism as a
philosophical religion and Ibn Tibbon’s part in translating the works
of the Arabic falāsifa. In light of the conclusions that can be drawn
from the preceding discussion, I attempt (4) to situate Ibn Tibbon’s
contribution in the context of the history of philosophy in Arabic and
Hebrew and to clarify the connection between his contribution and the
works of al-Fārābī and Maimonides. Thereafter, I consider briefly (5)
the opposition which the interpretation of Judaism as a philosophical
religion aroused in the early thirteenth century. Finally, I should men-
tion a further aspect which I have discussed in detail elsewhere: Ibn
Tibbon’s extensive criticism of Maimonides.15 This aspect, to which
scholars have devoted almost no attention until now, is in my opinion
crucial for assessing Ibn Tibbon’s intellectual profile because it shows

in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries), London and New York:
Routledge, 1998, pp. 95–104.
On the part played by Maimonides’ teachings in forming Jewish interest in phi-
losophy and science during the thirteenth century, see Pines, “Introduction” (above,
no. 3), p. cxx; S. Harvey, “Did Maimonides’ Letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon Determine
Which Philosophers Would Be Studied by Later Jewish Thinkers?”, Jewish Quarterly
Review 83 (1992), p. 67; and, especially, Freudenthal, “La Réception” (above, no. 6),
pp. 107–113. On the works that were translated, see below, no. 48. With regard to the
term “intellectual revolution,” cf. F. van Steenberghen, The Philosophical Movement in the
Thirteenth Century, Edinburgh: Nelson, 1955, who describes the reception of Aristotelian
philosophy in the Christian world as “the Thirteenth-Century Revolution” (p. 28).
See my paper “Beyond the Faithful Disciple: Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Criticism of
Maimonides,” in Maimonides after 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and His Influence, ed.
J. Harris, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, 33–63.
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him to be a thinker in his own right, not only the disciple of Maimo-
nides and the mediator of his work.

1. Interpreting Judaism as a Philosophical Religion16

How did Maimonides’ work justify the study of philosophy in a religious

setting? It is possible to characterize Maimonides’ project as an attempt
to transform Judaism into a philosophical religion. Its founders—from
the patriarchs and prophets to the rabbinic sages—were accomplished
philosophers, its concealed content is philosophy, and its commandments
lead to a philosophical life, whose goal is the unconditional devotion
to the intellectual love of God. Accordingly, studying philosophy is, in
fact, the same as studying “the secrets of the Law” and constitutes the
highest form of worship.17 On the one hand, Maimonides belongs to
an intellectual tradition, according to which it is the philosopher’s way
of life that brings a human being close to God.18 On the other hand,
he also belongs to an intellectual tradition, according to which one is
led toward that way of life by the book that is “the guide ['‫ ]הדאיה‬of
the first and the last men” (Guide I, 2; Eng. 24 / Heb. 21–22 / Ar. 16),
that is, the Mosaic Law.19 These two traditions unite in Maimonides’
thought, for he takes the Law to be the perfect πολιτεία in the Platonic
and Aristotelian sense: the “divine Law ['‫ ”]שריעה' אלאהיה‬whose

Because of space constraints, I cannot discuss here Maimonides’ interpretation
of Judaism as a philosophical religion in detail. I elaborate on this notion more sys-
tematically in chapter 2.2 of Fraenkel, From Maimonides to Samuel ibn Tibbon (above, no.
1). I do not use the word “religion” in this context as meaning something different
from philosophy. I mean philosophy itself as a way of life the purpose of which is
sometimes described as the “imitation of God [ὁµοίωσις θε&ῶ].” See, e.g., Plato, Tht.
176a–177a; Rp. VI, 500c–d, X, 613a–b; Phd. 80e–84b. See also Diotima’s speech on
“desire [ἔρως]” and “philosophy” as motive forces leading a human being to ascend
from the human level to the divine (Smp. 201d–212c).
Already Pines, “Introduction” (above, no. 3), cxx, emphasized the importance
of Maimonides’ claim that the prophets were philosophers for understanding the
exegetical project of the Guide. Since in Pines’ view this claim is not supported by any
evidence whatsoever, he suggested that it should be seen as “a ‘noble’ fiction in the
Platonic sense of the word,” whose dissemination and acceptance made it possible for
Aristotelian philosophy to become an important component of Jewish culture in the
period after Maimonides.
A tradition that originated in Greek Antiquity with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle;
see below, no. 20.
A tradition that found its first expression in Hellenistic Jewish thought; see below,
no. 66.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 183

purpose is “the welfare of the body [‫ ”]צלאח אלבדן‬and the “welfare

of the soul [‫”]צלאח אלנפס‬, that is, the establishment of ethical, politi-
cal, and intellectual conditions that make it possible to attain, first, the
“perfection of the body [‫ ”]כמאל אלג'סד‬and then, for those who have
the necessary capacity for it, the “perfection of the soul [‫”]כמאל אלנפס‬.
The latter is a human being’s “ultimate perfection [‫”]כמאלה אלאכ'יר‬,
which is attained by a life devoted to philosophy.20

See the definition of “divine Law” in Guide II, 40: “If [. . .] you find a Law all of
whose ordinances are due to attention being paid, as was stated before, to the sound-
ness [‫ ]צלאח‬of the circumstances pertaining to the body and also to the soundness
[‫ ]צלאח‬of belief—a Law that takes pains to inculcate correct opinions with regard
to God, may He be exalted in the first place, and with regard to the angels, and that
desires to make man wise, to give him understanding, and to awaken his attention,
so that he should know the whole of that which exists in its true form—you must
know that this guidance comes from Him, may He be exalted, and that this Law
is divine” (Eng. 384 / Heb. 339 / Ar. 271). Cf. also the account of Moses’ Law as
divine Law in Guide III, 27–28. On the connection between these chapters, see W.Z.
Harvey, “Between Political Philosophy and Halakhah in Maimonides’ Thought,” Iyyun
29 (1980), pp. 198–212 [Hebrew]. On the important distinction between “welfare” or
“soundness” (both translating the Arabic “‫ )”צלאח‬with respect to body and soul and
their “perfection [‫]כמאל‬,” see L. Kaplan, “ ‘I Sleep But My Heart Waketh’: Maimo-
nides’ Conception of Human Perfection,” in I. Robinson, L. Kaplan, J. Bauer, eds.,
The Thought of Moses Maimonides—Philosophical and Legal Studies, Lewiston, Queenston,
and Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990, pp. 130–166, esp. no. 20. The first to
point out the connection between Maimonides’ concept of the prophet and Plato’s
founder of the ideal state was L. Strauss, Philosophie und Gesetz: Beiträge zum Verständnis
Maimunis und seiner Vorläufer, Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1935, pp. 87–122; see esp. p. 113.
Strauss was also the first to examine the Muslim sources that influenced Maimonides’
political theory. My intention here is not to provide a comprehensive historical analysis,
however, but to very briefly sketch how Maimonides may be said to have adopted the
philosophical-political project of the Greek philosophers, and to have made use of it
in interpreting Judaism as a philosophical religion. In my view it is possible to char-
acterize Plato’s and Aristotle’s political philosophy as an attempt to clarify the condi-
tions that must be fulfilled to attain what Maimonides calls the “ultimate perfection.”
The aim of Plato’s best state is to lead the citizens to virtue, in particular to “justice
[δικαισύνη]” through which “happiness” and “imitation of God” are achieved (on
justice and happiness, see Rp. IX, 576c–588a; on justice and imitation of God, see Rp.
X, 613a–613b). To be just means that each of the three faculties of the soul performs
the task appropriate for it (see Rp. IV, 435b–441c). Since “the intellectual faculty [τὸ
λογιστικὸν]” is the soul’s highest faculty, its task is to govern the lower faculties, as
well as to carry out its natural activity, that is, the apprehension of what exists (Rp. IX,
582c). In this apprehension, according to Plato, the most sublime pleasure is found (Rp.
IX, 584d–586c). For Plato (as later for Maimonides), clearly not all citizens have the
ability to attain the perfection of a philosophical life. It is accessible only to a select
few, who advance from level to level in the best state’s educational program (see Rp.
VI, 502c–VII, 541b; cf. the preconditions that must be met by philosophers: Rp. VI,
485b–487a). In Rp. (and to a considerable degree in Plt. as well), the formation of the
best state and the preservation of its structure depend on the philosopher-king (Rp.
V, 473c–473d). He shapes and governs the state in accordance with his apprehension
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It is important to note that while the Mosaic Law leads to the “wel-
fare of the soul” in form of correct opinions, it does not teach those
opinions by means of demonstrations, but conveys them in form of
beliefs accepted on the basis of tradition. In Maimonides’ view, such

of the eternal, unchanging, and immaterial forms of the virtues, such as the form of
justice (Rp. VI, 500b–502a) and, ultimately, in accordance with his apprehension of
the principle that grounds both existence and cognition: “the idea of the good [ἰδέα
τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ].” This apprehension is the goal of the philosopher’s education described
in books VI–VIII. In Lg., by contrast, the political order is shaped by laws enacted
by a legislator who received them from God. From Lg. IV, 713a it is possible to infer
that God is intellect, and from 713e–714a, that the laws are an expression of intel-
lect. The purpose of the laws is to lead the state’s citizens to acquire all virtues and
perfections, both human and divine. The attainment of the human perfections, such
as health and wealth, is not an end in itself, but rather a means for the attainment of
the divine perfections. The highest end is the attainment of “intellect [which is the
perfection] that rules over all other things [τὸν ἡγεµόνα νοῦν σύµπαντα]” (Lg. I, 631d).
It is clear that Maimonides’ concept of the Mosaic Law is close to the concept of the
laws in Plato’s state, and it is worth noting in this connection that Avicenna describes
Plato’s book on “the laws [‫ ”]اﻟﻨﻮاﻣﻴﺲ‬as one dealing with “prophecy and Law [‫ابﻟﻨﺒﻮة‬
‫( ”]واﻟﴩﯾﻌﺔ‬Fī Aqsām al- Ulūm al- Aqliyya [On the Division of the Rational Sciences]
in Tis Rasā il fī al- ikma wa-al- abī āt; cf. Strauss, Philosophie und Gesetz, p. 113). Also
Aristotle’s ethical and political doctrines can be interpreted in light of the concept of
the best state, whose purpose is to lead the citizens to virtue, and, thereby, to happi-
ness (note that my claim is, of course, not that this is the only possible interpretation
of Aristotle’s position; my purpose here is only to outline a reading that allows to see
the aspects of Aristotle’s practical philosophy that reappear in Maimonides’ thought).
According to NE I, 1 the art that examines the highest good is the “art of government”
and its task is to shape the state’s structure and the laws that determine the actions
of its citizens in a way that facilitates its attainment. The highest good is “happiness,”
defined as the activity of the soul, according to its essential virtue, and in case there is
more than one, according to the most perfect (NE I, 6). The importance of the laws
in guiding the citizens toward the virtues is emphasized as well in NE X, 10, and in
Pol. VII–VIII, where Aristotle presents his version of the best state. According to NE
X, 7–8, wisdom is the most perfect virtue, i.e., the activity of the divine element in the
human soul, to which the life of contemplation is devoted. From this it appears possible
to infer that the purpose of the ruler and legislator should be to guide the citizens to
the philosophical life and, in a sense, to the imitation of God. Indeed, in EE VIII,
3, God is explicitly declared to be the goal, whose attainment is the purpose of what
“wisdom commands [ἡ φρόνησις ἐπιτάττει]” (1249 b15). A choice is considered good
to the extent it contributes to the “contemplation of God,” and it is considered bad
to the extent it constitutes an obstacle to “the service and contemplation of God [τὸν
θεὸν θεραπεύειν καὶ θεωρεῖν]” (1249 b18–21). Nevertheless, an important difference
between the Greek philosophers and Maimonides must be noted: for Maimonides, the
best state is not a subject of philosophical investigation, but, in fact, already exists in
form of the Mosaic Law and in form of the community that lives in accordance with
it (cf. Strauss, Philosophie und Gesetz, p. 117). It seems thus clear why Maimonides thinks
that when “people are governed by divine commandments ['‫”]באלאואמר אלאלהיה‬,
there is no need for books on political philosophy (Maqāla fī inā at al-Man iq [Treatise
on the Art of Logic], ed. Y. Kafih, Qiryat Ono, 1997, chapter 14).
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 185

a distinction was already made by the rabbinic sages: “The sages, may
their memory be blessed, mention likewise that man is required first to
obtain knowledge of the Torah, then to obtain wisdom [. . .] And this
should be the order observed: The opinions in question should first be
known as being received through tradition ['‫ ;]מקבולה‬then they should
be demonstrated [‫]תברהן‬.” (Guide III, 54; Eng. 633–634 / Heb. 595 /
Ar. 467).21 It follows that in order to move from welfare of the soul
to perfection of the soul, a person must transform the beliefs received
through tradition into wisdom, which, according to Maimonides, is
accomplished by studying “the numerous kinds of all the theoretical
sciences.” This study is intended by the commandment to love God:
Among the things to which your attention ought to be directed is that
you should know that in regard to the correct opinions through which
the ultimate perfection may be obtained, the Law has communicated only
their end and made a call to believe in them in a summary way—that
is to believe in the existence of the deity, may He be exalted, His unity,
His knowledge, His power, His will, and His eternity. All these points are
ultimate ends, which can be made clear in detail and through definitions
only after one knows many opinions [. . .]. With regard to all the other
correct opinions concerning the whole of being—opinions that constitute
the numerous kinds of all the theoretical sciences ['‫אלעלום אלנט'ריה‬
‫ ]כלהא אנואעהא‬through which the opinions forming the ultimate end
are validated—the Law, albeit it does not make a call to direct attention
toward them in detail as it does with regard to [the opinions forming
ultimate ends], does do this in summary fashion by saying: “To love the
Lord” [Deut. 13:11]. You know how this is confirmed in the dictum
regarding love: “With all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all
thy might” [Deut. 6:5]. We have already explained in the Mishneh Torah
[cf. Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2f.] that this love becomes valid only through
the apprehension of the whole of being as it is and through the con-
sideration of His wisdom as it is manifested in it [‫באדראך אלוג'וד כלה‬
‫]עלי מא הו עליה ואעתבאר חכמתה פיה‬. (Guide III, 28; Eng. 512–513 /
Heb. 471 / Ar. 373.)22
To love God thus means to study the theoretical sciences, and Maimo-
nides describes the content of these studies as follows: “It is certainly

Maimonides is interpreting B.T. Shabbat 31a; cf. also the definitions of talmud and
gemara in Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, Laws Concerning the Study of Torah
I, 10–12.
Cf. id., Laws Concerning the Foundations of the Torah I, 2 and IV, 12; Laws
of Repentance X, 6; cf. also chapter 5 of the “Eight Chapters” (Introduction to
the Commentary on Pirqe Avot, in Commentary on the Mishnah, ed. and Hebrew trans.
Y. Kafih, Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1965).
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necessary ['‫ ]צ'רורה‬for whoever wishes to achieve human perfection

to train himself ['‫ ]אלארתיאץ‬at first in the art of logic, then in the
mathematical sciences according to the proper order, then in the natural
sciences, and after that in the divine science” (Guide I, 34; Eng. 75 /
Heb. 64 / Ar. 50). But if the sciences are indeed of such crucial impor-
tance, we must ask why it is not possible to learn them from the Law.
Maimonides’ answer is given in the following passage:
Know that to begin with this science is very harmful [‫]מצ'ר ג'דא‬, I mean
the divine science. In the same way, it is also harmful to make clear the
meaning of the parables of the prophets and to draw attention to the
figurative senses of terms used in addressing people, figurative senses
of which the books of prophecy are full. It behooves rather to educate
the young and to give firmness to the deficient in capacity according
to the measure of their apprehension [‫בל ינבגי אן ירבי אלאצגאר ויקר‬
‫]אלמקצרון עלי קדר אדראכהם‬. Thus he who is seen to be perfect in
mind and to be formed for that high rank—that is to say, demonstrative
speculation and true intellectual inferences—should be elevated step by
step [‫]אנהץ' אולא אולא‬, either by someone who directs his attention
or by himself, until he achieves his perfection. If, however, he begins
with the divine science, it will not be a mere confusion [‫ ]תשויש‬in his
beliefs that will befall him, but rather absolute negation ['‫]תעטיל מחץ‬.
In my opinion, an analogous case would be that of someone feeding a
suckling with wheaten bread and meat and giving him wine to drink.
He would undoubtedly kill him, not because these aliments are bad or
unnatural for man, but because the child that receives them is too weak
to digest them so as to derive a benefit from them. Similarly these true
opinions were not hidden, enclosed in riddles, and treated by all men
of knowledge with all sorts of artifice through which they could teach
them without expounding them explicitly, because of something bad
being hidden in them, or because they undermine the foundations of the
Law, as is thought by ignorant people who deem that they have attained
a rank suitable for speculation. Rather have they been hidden because
at the outset the intellect is incapable of receiving them; only flashes of
them are made to appear so that the perfect man should know them. On
this account they are called “secrets and mysteries of the Torah,” as we
shall make clear. This is the cause of the fact that the “Torah speaketh
in the language of the sons of man” [B.T. Yevamot 71a; B.T. Baba Mezi a
31b], as we have made clear. This is so because [the Torah] is presented
in such a manner as to make it possible for the young, the women,
and all the people to begin with it and to learn it. Now it is not within
their power to understand these matters as they truly are. Hence they
are confined to accepting tradition [‫ ]אלתקליד‬with regard to all sound
opinions that are of such a sort that it is preferable that they should be
pronounced true and with regard to all representations of this kind—
and this in such a manner that the mind is led toward the existence of
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 187

the objects of these opinions and representations but not toward gras-
ping their essence as it truly is. (Guide I, 33; Eng. 70–72 / Heb. 60–61 /
Ar. 47–48.)
Since the public teaching of the theoretical sciences would cause
enormous damage to the multitude, the prophets realized the need to
conceal them. The terms which in rabbinic literature designate esoteric
doctrines, the “Account of the Beginning” and the “Account of the
Chariot,” refer, according to Maimonides, precisely to these sciences:
“the Account of the Beginning is identical with natural science [‫אלעלם‬
‫]אלטביעי‬, and the Account of the Chariot with divine science [‫אלעלם‬
‫( ”]אלאלאהי‬Guide I, Introduction; Eng. 6 / Heb. 5 / Ar. 3). This explains
the peculiar literary character of the Mosaic Law, which Maimonides,
in his well known interpretation of Proverbs 25:11, compares to “apples
of gold in settings of silver.”23 The Law’s twofold literary character in
turn reflects the two faculties of the soul that collaborate in bringing
about prophecy. The “quiddity” of prophecy, according to Maimonides,
is “an overflow overflowing from God [. . .] through the intermediation
of the Active Intellect, toward the rational faculty ['‫]אלקוה' אלנאטקה‬
in the first place and thereafter toward the imaginative faculty ['‫אלקוה‬
'‫( ”]אלמתכ'ילה‬Guide II, 36; Eng. 369 / Heb. 325 / Ar. 260). The imagi-
nation of the prophet provides the “settings of silver” or the public side
of the Law facing the multitude and designed according to political
and pedagogical considerations. The rational faculty of the prophet
provides the “golden apples” or the concealed side of the Law accessible
only to the intellectual elite and designed according to “the truth as it
is [‫( ”]אלחק עלי חקיקתה‬Guide I, Introduction; Eng. 12 / Heb. 11 /
Ar. 8). As a consequence of the two sides of the words of the Law,
“the multitude [‫ ]אלג'מהור‬will comprehend them in accord with the
capacity of their understanding and the weakness of their representa-
tion, whereas the perfect man, who already knew [‫אלכאמל אלד'י קד‬
‫]עלם‬, will comprehend them otherwise” (id.; Eng. 9 / Heb. 8 / Ar.
5). But in order to reach the perfection required for apprehending the
Law’s concealed side, it is necessary to study the theoretical sciences,
whose dissemination in public was prohibited as we have seen. Accord-
ing to Maimonides, these sciences once “have existed in our religious
community” and “were orally transmitted by a few men belonging
to the elite to a few of the same kind [‫כאנת מקולה' מן אחאד כ'ואץ‬

Cf. Guide I, Introduction.
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‫]לאחאד כ'ואץ‬,” but they “have perished because of the length of the
time that has passed, because of our being dominated by the pagan
nations, and because, as we have made clear, it is not permitted to
divulge these matters to all people” (Guide I, 71; Eng. 175–176 / Heb.
151–152 / Ar. 121). This means that, although allusions to “the truth
as it is” survived in form of the “secrets of the Torah,” the key neces-
sary for their understanding had been lost due to the circumstances
of the Diaspora. Fortunately, in Maimonides’ time, a replacement key
had become available: Greco-Arabic thought, in particular the intel-
lectual tradition of the falāsifa, which Maimonides considered to be the
closest to the truth of all intellectual traditions in the Muslim world.
Since one “must accept the truth from whoever says it [‫אסמע אלחק‬
‫]ממן קאלה‬,”24 as Maimonides emphasizes in the introduction to Eight
Chapters, he does not hesitate to direct Ibn Tibbon to the study of the
falāsifa’s works: starting with the writings of Aristotle—“whose intellect
represents the highest achievement of the human intellect [‫שכלו הוא‬
‫ ]תכלית השכל האנושי‬except for those who received God’s emanation
and became prophets”25—continuing with his Greek commentators,
Alexander of Aphrodisias and Themistius, and concluding with their
Muslim students, especially al-Fārābī, Ibn Bājja and Averroes. It matters
little in this context how perfect the wisdom of the prophets suppos-
edly was—since it is lost, the study of Aristotle and his disciples is not
only permitted; it is an obligation for every Jew who wishes to achieve
human perfection, who wishes to acquire the key to the “secrets of the
Law,” and who wishes to devote himself to what the Law prescribes
as the ultimate end: the intellectual love of God. It should be clear
by now how Maimonides’ interpretation of Judaism as a philosophi-
cal religion could become the conceptual framework that justified the
translation and the study of the philosophical and scientific works that
stood on the bookshelves of the Arabic falāsifa. It becomes apparent,
moreover, how the study of philosophy fits into the exegetical program
that Maimonides sets out to accomplish in the Guide. His addressees are
intelligent students, who have received a philosophical education based

Preface to “Eight Chapters” (above, no. 22), p. 155.
Iggerot ha-Rambam [Letters of Maimonides], ed. Y. Sheilat, Ma aleh Adumim:
Ma aliyot, 1988–89, 2 vols., p. 553 [henceforth: Letters]. This section of the letter is
not extant in Arabic. See the variant readings in the various Hebrew translations listed
by S. Harvey, “Maimonides’ Letter” (above, no. 14), p. 63, no. 34. In my translation
I used the Hebrew version of Shem Tov Falaquera.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 189

on the writings of Aristotle and his disciples, and now need instruction
for reading the Mosaic Law which allows them to discern its concealed
content. Indeed, the perplexity, from which the Guide of the Perplexed
proposes to cure its readers, stems from the inability of some among
the “perfect men” to recognize the “secrets of the Torah” and their
identity with the teachings of the philosophers. Thus, the two purposes
of the Guide, outlined in the introduction, are to explain to the perplexed
Jewish intellectual “the meanings of certain terms,” as well as “very
obscure parables occurring in the books of the prophets” (Eng. 5–6 /
Heb. 4–5 / Ar. 2). If we accept Maimonides’ premises it turns out that
he does not teach anything new in the Guide. Rather, his modest aim
is to open the eyes of the perplexed and enable them to see the agree-
ment between philosophy and the lost wisdom of the prophets. The
perplexed intellectual who “felt distressed by the externals of the Law
['‫ ”]ט'ואהר אלשריעה‬and who thought he would have to renounce “the
foundations of the Law [‫ ”]קואעד אלשרע‬if he decided to “follow his
intellect” (Eng. 5 / Heb. 4 / Ar. 2) now discovers under Maimonides’
guidance that, in fact, the exact opposite is the case: he is on the way
to attain the Law’s ultimate goal by means of his philosophical studies!
Maimonides’ exegetical program is thus presented as the recovery of
Judaism’s essence as a philosophical religion, which due to the adverse
circumstances of the Diaspora had gradually fallen into oblivion after
the rabbinic period—reaching a point when Jews were occupied only
with the Torah’s “layers of rind [‫ ]אלקשור‬and thought that beneath
them there was no core [‫ ]לב‬whatever” (Guide I, 71; Eng. 176 / Heb.
152 / Ar. 121).
In my opinion the comprehensive effort Ibn Tibbon put into mak-
ing accessible Maimonides’ writings—by translating, interpreting, and
teaching them—should be understood in light of his aim to transform
Maimonides’ interpretation of Judaism into its authoritative interpreta-
tion.26 His presentation of Maimonides as a cultural hero,27 who rescued
the true essence of Judaism bears witness to this project. According to
Ibn Tibbon, the purpose of the Guide is “to provide guidance to the
perplexed with regard to the true meaning of the verses written in
the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.” In other words: the Guide

Cf. Ravitzky, Teachings of R. Zerahyah (above, no. 1), pp. 1–3.
The term was coined by B. Septimus, Hispano-Jewish Culture (above, no. 12); see,
e.g., p. 46.
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makes the wisdom concealed behind the biblical text, i.e., the “golden
apples” in the “settings of silver,” visible again for the perplexed. In
Ibn Tibbon’s account, the Jewish wisdom tradition began with Moses,
continued until the completion of the Talmud, and then was inter-
rupted until being restored to its past glory through Maimonides’ heroic
accomplishment: 28
The sages [. . .] of the Mishnah and the Talmud also wrote down hints
and riddles, scattered and dispersed in their midrashim, that pertain to
the subjects of wisdom and ethics. Each one [wrote] according to the
wisdom he possessed in these subjects and his ability to apply the art of
concealment. After the sages of the Talmud, however, only very few were
stirred [‫ ]מעט נמצא מי שהתעורר‬to compose a book or write a word
about these sciences; the composing of books about legal judgments and
what is forbidden and permitted was sufficient for them. Then God saw
the poverty of knowledge of his people and the amount of ignorance
concerning everything related to wisdom, and He raised up a savior
[‫]והקים להם גואל‬, a wise and understanding man, wise in crafts and
with an understanding of “whispering.” Since the days of Rav Ashi
until his own, no one was known to have risen up among our people
who was like him with regard to every aspect of wisdom. He is the true
sage, the divine philosopher, our master and teacher, Moses, the servant
of God, son of the great sage Rabbi Maimon. And the Lord stirred his
spirit [‫ ]והעיר השם את רוחו‬to write books of great nobility. He wrote
books in the field of Talmud: the Commentary on the Mishnah of Six Orders,
and another great and noble book, which he called Mishneh Torah. [. . .]
But all of this was insignificant in his eyes until he composed yet another
treatise, a priceless pearl, which he called, according to its utility, the
Guide of the Perplexed. [This utility consists in] the guidance provided to
the perplexed with regard to the true meaning of the verses written in
the Torah, the Prophets, and Writings as the aforementioned sage [i.e.,
Maimonides] explained. (20—21)
It seems clear that in Ibn Tibbon’s view Maimonides, who had attained
great respect as a halakhic authority throughout the Jewish world, was
well-suited to provide the conceptual framework required for trans-

Perush Qohelet [Commentary on Ecclesiastes; hereafter: PQ ], ed. and partial Eng.
trans. J. Robinson, in Commentary on Ecclesiastes (above, no. 1). I have modified the trans-
lation. On the quoted passage, see pp. 230–231, nos. 102–107. Note that Ibn Tibbon
here uses Maimonides’ own characterization of the history of Jewish thought, according
to which the wisdom tradition in Judaism was interrupted after the rabbinic period;
cf. the passage in Guide I, 71 discussed above. In the Introduction to the Mishneh Torah,
Maimonides stresses that “Ravina and Rav Ashi and their colleagues” were the “last
of the great sages of Israel,” but he does not claim in that passage that the wisdom
tradition disappeared after their generation.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 191

forming Judaism into a philosophical religion. If Maimonides was the

“savior” God raised when he saw his people’s “poverty of knowledge,” it
follows that the dissemination of Maimonides’ writings, and in particular
of the Guide, was nothing less than a contribution to salvation. Clearly,
this is a salvation from ignorance achieved through the intellectual love
of God, which leads the human soul to its ultimate perfection.

2. From Maimonides’ Disciple to Maimonides’ Successor

But Ibn Tibbon did not merely promote the framework in question.
He was also the first to make use of it. To be able to do so, he presents
himself as Maimonides’ faithful disciple: “for from his waters I drink
and make others drink [‫( ”]כי ממימיו אני שותה ומשקה‬PQ , 39), and
in several respects he can indeed be said to carry on Maimonides’
intellectual project. His shorter works are directly tied to Maimonides’
writings, and also his two comprehensive works of philosophical exe-
gesis—PQ and Ma amar Yiqqavu ha-Mayim [Treatise ‘Let the Waters Be
Gathered’]29—are not described as independent treatises. Whereas PQ
is presented as the completion of the Guide’s philosophical-exegetical
program, MYM is presented as something like an update of the Guide.
In order to understand this presentation we must first examine the
model Ibn Tibbon used for describing his relationship to Maimonides.
An account of this model is given in the introduction to PQ in form of
an interpretation of Proverbs 11:30: “the fruit of the righteous is a tree
of life; and he that takes souls is wise [‫]ולוקח נפשות חכם‬:”
The meaning and interpretation of this verse are as follows: “The fruit
of the righteous” is wisdom and it is with [wisdom] that the sage [‫החכם‬,
i.e., the “wise” man of the verse] “takes souls,” that is, acquires souls
[‫]קונה נפשות‬. He said “souls” and not “[one] soul,” because [the sage]
acquires not only his own soul but the soul of everyone who gathers
and eats his “fruits,” whether from his mouth or from his books that he
composed on wisdom. The meaning of “acquiring” [in this context] is
not acquiring something from someone else and taking possession of it,
such as acquiring a garment, or a tool, or a beast [of burden], or a slave.
Rather, its meaning is to cause the “soul” to exist [‫]המצאת הנפש‬, that is,
to cause it to exist in actuality by perfecting it and making it pass from
potentiality to actuality, until [the soul] becomes capable of immortality

Ed. M.L. Bisliches, Pressburg, 1837 [henceforth: MYM ].
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[‫]השארות‬. This is the soul that the “righteous” causes to exist by means
of his wisdom, which is figuratively represented by the “tree of life” [cf.
Genesis 2:9]. That is, [the sage] is the proximate cause of the [soul’s
actualized] existence. The meaning of “to take” in the phrase “he that
takes souls,” which we have explained as meaning “to acquire,” that is,
“he that acquires souls,” means “to acquire” as in the verse: “He that
acquires heaven and earth” [Gen. 14:19]. (PQ , 1–2)
The meaning of the passage is clear. The sage, by means of his wisdom,
“acquires” the souls of his disciples (i.e., those “who gather and eat
his fruits”) either through oral teaching (“from his mouth”) or through
his writings (“from his books”). “To acquire” the disciple’s soul means:
“to cause it to exist in actuality by perfecting it and making it pass
from potentiality to actuality, until it becomes capable of immortal-
ity.” The correspondence between “to acquire” and “to cause to exist”
is established on the basis of Maimonides’ interpretation of Genesis
14:19 in Guide II, 30 where he explains “to acquire” as God’s creating
the world or causing it to exist. When Ibn Tibbon speaks of the soul’s
“immortality” he refers, of course, not to the soul as a whole but to its
intellectual faculty. What the sage causes to exist in actuality by means
of his wisdom is, then, the intellect of his disciples, i.e., he actualizes
their knowledge through his teachings. A similar idea is expressed in
Guide I, 7 where Maimonides explains in which sense it is possible to
say that one’s disciple is one’s son: “whoever teaches an individual in
some matter and makes him gain an opinion has, as far as his being
provided with this opinion is concerned, as it were given birth to that
individual [‫( ”]פכאנה אולד ד'לך אלשכ'ץ‬Eng. 32 / Heb. 28 / Ar. 21).
In other words, the teacher is the father because he “gives birth” to
the disciple’s intellect, which is his form;30 and since it is by virtue
of the form that a human being is a human being—for without the
form, “he is not a human being but an animal having the shape and
configuration of a human being [‫ליס הו אנסאנא בל חיואנא עלי שכל‬
‫( ”]אלאנסאן‬Eng. 33 / Heb. 29 / Ar. 22)—it turns out that the teacher

On the identification of the human form with the intellect, see, e.g., Guide I, 1;
compare the entry “Active Intellect,” in PMZ, p. 71. Although Maimonides does not
explicitly speak of the birth of the intellect in Guide I, 7, his explanation of Seth’s birth
in Adam’s “likeness and image” (cf. Genesis 5:3) makes clear that he is referring to it.
Cf. also the commentaries of Efodi and Shem-Tov ad locum, printed in the Warsaw
1872 edition of the Guide.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 193

is, in fact, in a truer sense the father than the biological father.31 It is
clear, therefore, that “to cause to exist” in Ibn Tibbon’s terminology
means the same as “giving birth” in Maimonides’ terminology. It is
interesting to note that, according to Ibn Tibbon, the sage is only the
“proximate cause” of his disciple’s soul’s immortality. This implies that
there is another cause, a “remote cause,” and that the sage’s wisdom
in some sense mediates between this remote cause and his disciples. To
understand what Ibn Tibbon means here, recall that according to the
passage in PQ , not only “the fruit of the righteous” is identified with
“wisdom,” but also “the tree of life.” Thus, “fruit of the righteous,” “tree
of life,” and “wisdom” are, in fact, three names for the same thing. In
his commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:3—“What does a man gain from all
his efforts beneath the sun”—Ibn Tibbon explains that, according to
Qohelet, nothing is to be gained from efforts directed toward what is
beneath the sun, but much is to be gained from efforts directed toward
what is above the sun:
That which the sage alluded to [in Qohelet] as being above the sun is
the root of true wisdom, called the tree of life. The root of this tree is
without doubt above the sun, for the root of this wisdom is a separate
intellect, which—according to our religious belief and according to the
opinion of all philosophers who believe in the immortality of the soul—
perfects the souls of the righteous and the completely pious until they
conjoin with it [‫ ]ידבקו בו‬and become one and the same thing. Then
[the souls] will be at a level of existence above the sun and will become
eternal. (PQ , 159)
Thus, the remote cause that brings about immortality of the soul and
eternal life is the conjunction with the separate intellect, which is the
root of the tree of life, i.e., the source of wisdom. Because the separate
intellect is eternal, and the intellect that cognizes it becomes one with
the cognized object, the cognizing intellect becomes eternal as well:
“When [the soul] conjoins with that [separate] intellect the two of them
become one, for [the soul] becomes divine, of the highest rank, [and]

This form which is the intellect is likewise the component of a human being
that remains after death; cf. Book of Knowledge, Laws of Repentance VIII, 3 and Laws
Concerning the Foundations of the Torah IV, 8; see also Guide I, 70 and III, 51. In this
sense, Maimonides can use the rabbinic dictum that a person owes more honor to his
teacher than to his father, for “his father brings him into the life of this world, but his
master, who teaches him wisdom, brings him into the life of the world to come.” Laws
Concerning the Study of Torah VIII, 1 (interpreting B.T. Baba Metzi a 33a; compare
Ibn Tibbon’s use of the same dictum in PQ , 8).
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immortal [‫ ]אלוהית עליונית נשארת‬through the immortality of that intel-

lect with which it conjoined” (MYM XIV, 91). Hence the source of the
sage’s wisdom, by means of which he brings his disciple’s intellect into
existence, is the separate intellect; and the disciple’s intellect conjoins
with it when he receives the teachings of the sage, thereby achieving
immortality of his soul’s intellectual faculty. Wisdom, therefore, is both
the product of the conjunction with the separate intellect and the means
to reach this conjunction. The process described by Ibn Tibbon may
be subdivided into three stages. First, the sage’s intellect conjoins with
the separate intellect by cognizing it. Next, the sage transmits what he
cognized—i.e., his wisdom—to his disciples (through oral instruction
or through his writings). Finally, the sage’s teachings become the means
that enable the ascent of his disciples until they, too, conjoin with the
separate intellect, thereby closing the circle. It should be noted that by
becoming one with the separate intellect—which is devoid of any par-
ticularizing features32—the human soul loses its personal traits as well.33
As a consequence, all souls conjoined with the separate intellect are
changed into a single intellectual entity. With respect to their intellects,
therefore, the distinction between the sage and his disciples disappears
at this point: when the disciples attain the goal of their studies, their
intellects conjoin with that of the sage. These, then, are the principal
components of the model Ibn Tibbon uses to portray the relationship

Pines’ description of the divine intellect in the Guide as “the system of forms [. . .]
subsisting in the universe” fits, of course, also Ibn Tibbon’s separate intellect. Pines,
“Introduction” (above, no. 3), p. xciii.
Cf. G. Vajda, “An Analysis of the Ma amar yiqqawu ha-Mayim by Samuel b. Judah
Ibn Tibbon,” Journal of Jewish Studies X (1959), pp. 137–149. Referring to the passage
quoted above (MYM, p. 91), Vajda points out Averroes’ influence, to which Ibn Tib-
bon’s doctrine bears witness: “The expressions used in the passage [. . .] can only be
understood in the context of total fusion, leaving no room for the individual survival of
disincarnated souls, which is definitely an idea of Ibn Roshd’s.” On Averroes’ doctrine
of intellectual conjunction, see H.A. Davidson, Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes on Intellect,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 321–340, esp. p. 338. Compare Averroes’
description of the “form that comes to be” in the material intellect as “one shared by
all human beings, for the essence by which one human being cognizes the species is
the essence by which the rest of humankind cognizes them—those existing now, those
who have passed away, and those who will exist.” “Averroes’ Commentary of the De
Intellectu attributed to Alexander,” ed. H.A. Davidson, Shlomo Pines Jubilee Volume 1,
Jerusalem, 1988, p. 211; and see the account of conjunction with the active intellect,
id., pp. 214–215. Maimonides attributes a similar view to Ibn Bājja in Guide I, 74; cf.
the commentary of Shem Tov Falaquera, Moreh ha-Moreh [Guide to the Guide], ed.
Y. Schiffman, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 207–208, who cites Averroes in this context; cf. also
Munk’s remarks in his French translation of the Guide: Le Guide des Egarés, traduction
française par S. Munk, 3 vols., Paris, 1856–1866, vol. 1, p. 434, no. 4.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 195

between the sage and his disciples. Let us now see how he applies this
model in describing his own relationship to Maimonides.
As we saw earlier, Ibn Tibbon conceives the wisdom tradition in
Judaism as a chain of transmission from sages to their disciples. This
chain begins with Moses, continues with David, Solomon, and the
prophets, and then reaches the rabbinic period. After the rabbinic
period Ibn Tibbon attributes a key role to Maimonides, described as
“the savior [. . .] stirred” by God, who rescues the wisdom concealed
in the Jewish sources after it had fallen into oblivion. God, for Ibn
Tibbon, is “called the divine intellect,” and is simply the first in the
series of “separate intellects” (PMZ, 70). We may conclude, therefore,
that the “stirring” of Maimonides’ “spirit” refers to the emanation of
wisdom from the divine intellect on to Maimonides’ intellect, who, in
turn, disseminates it by means of the “books of great nobility” which
he composed.34 The books, as we saw, are one of two ways through
which the sage conveys wisdom to his disciples, and since Ibn Tibbon
never had the opportunity to study with Maimonides face-to-face,35 he
could only partake in his wisdom by studying his writings:
Everything that I interpret [in PQ ] with respect to wisdom [ ‫מדבר‬
‫]חכמה‬, I interpret only according to what was revealed to me from his
[Maimonides’] books that it is his opinion concerning these issues, for
from his waters I drink and make [others] drink [‫כי ממימיו אני שותה‬
‫]ומשקה‬. And all this comes from the “fruit of the righteous” and from
his good work which is for the sake of life and causes life continuously
and forever. For this reason, I began this Preface with this verse [i.e., “the
fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that takes souls is wise;”
Proverbs 11:30]. (PQ , 39)
The “waters” of Maimonides are, of course a metaphor for his wisdom,
according to Guide I, 30 (“Similarly, they often designate knowledge
as water [‫ ”;]אלעלם מאא‬Eng. 64 / Heb. 55 / Ar. 43). This wisdom is
transmitted to Ibn Tibbon by means of Maimonides’ “books,” which
are part of the “fruit of the righteous.” From the end of the passage
it is clear that Ibn Tibbon is modeling the presentation of himself as
Maimonides’ disciple on the sage-disciple relationship described earlier

It is plausible to assume that the divine emanation reaches Maimonides mediated
through the active intellect; cf. the definition of the “quiddity” of prophecy in Guide II,
36. It appears that Ibn Tibbon followed here the habit of the prophets, who, according
to Maimonides, sometimes fail to mention the intermediate causes (cf. Guide II, 48).
As is well-known, Maimonides did not encourage Ibn Tibbon to visit him in Egypt
and refused to accept him as his student; see his letter to Ibn Tibbon (Letters, p. 550).
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in his interpretation of Proverbs 11:30, to which he makes reference

here. Moreover, if we recall the three-fold link that we saw connects
the separate intellect, the sage, and the disciple, it is perhaps not sur-
prising to find Ibn Tibbon mentioning a second source of inspiration
alongside Maimonides’ books:
And when I came to purify my heart from the defilement of ignorance
[‫]מטנוף הסכלות‬, I received help from the heavens and God opened my
eyes [. . .] and I believe that I apprehended [Qohelet’s] intention concern-
ing most of what he said. (MYM, 36)36
It is clear that the “heart” which Ibn Tibbon came to purify from
“the defilement of ignorance” is the intellect, according to Guide I,
39 (“it is also a term denoting the intellect;” Eng. 89 / Heb. 76 / Ar.
60), and that “God” stands again for the first separate intellect.37 If
we now interpret the last quoted passages in light of what we learned
earlier about the sage-disciple relationship, it follows that, by receiving
Maimonides’ wisdom through the study of his books, Ibn Tibbon’s
intellect was brought into existence and attained immortality. In other
words: Maimonides, as Ibn Tibbon’s teacher, enables him to ascend
to and, finally, conjoin with the eternal separate intellect, with which
Maimonides himself had previously been conjoined. Since at this stage
only one single intellectual entity remains with no individual distinc-
tions, it follows that at the conclusion of his studies Ibn Tibbon no
longer saw himself only as Maimonides’ disciple, but—with respect to
their intellectual faculty—as Maimonides himself ! Let me add that to
a degree Maimonides reinforces these conclusions. We have seen how,
in Guide I, 7, the disciple is called “son” because the teacher “gives
birth” to his intellect, and that “giving birth” in Maimonides’ termi-
nology corresponds to “bringing into existence” in Ibn Tibbon’s. Now
Maimonides, too, applies this general model to his relationship to Ibn
Tibbon when at the end of his letter to him he calls him “my son and
student,” after having noted at the beginning that Ibn Tibbon’s “heart”
(which is to say, his intellect) “descends into the depth of the [Guide’s]
meaning and reveals [its] hidden secrets [‫]ויגלה מצפון הסודות‬.” In a
sense, then, Maimonides saw himself as “giving birth” to the eternal
form of his “son and student,” Ibn Tibbon, by means of the Guide.

On God opening Ibn Tibbon’s eyes, compare PQ , 518.
In PQ , 453, Ibn Tibbon writes: “and the word ‘to see’ is equivocal; it can refer
to the seeing of the heart, which is knowledge, as was mentioned in Guide I, 4.” Cf.
also PQ , 597.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 197

While Ibn Tibbon “drinks” from Maimonides’ “waters” as his dis-

ciple, he “makes [others] drink” from them as an author in his own
right. In his view, Maimonides “made known the meaning of every
[biblical book]” except for Ecclesiastes:
He made known the meaning [‫ ]כוונה‬of the Torah of Moses, peace
be upon him [. . .], and the book of Job he explained in its entirety. He
alluded to most of the secrets in the books of the prophets. With regard
to the book of Proverbs, he alluded to its principal meaning, and he did
the same with regard to Song of Songs. As for Ecclesiastes, however, I
did not find that he accomplished this. (PQ , 39)
In light of what has been discussed, it is not surprising that Ibn Tib-
bon saw himself fit to compose a commentary on Ecclesiastes, and
thereby to complete the work of his teacher and intellectual father.
The inspiration for this he drew from the same source, from which
Maimonides had drawn the inspiration for his interpretations: “those
who understand [Maimonides’ allusions] have no doubt that he knew
and had grasped them by means of the holy spirit” (PQ , 23).38 As we
saw earlier, Ibn Tibbon likewise received “help from the heavens and
God opened my eyes” (PQ , 36). He makes similar comments in his short
treatise Ta am ha-Shulhan ve-Lehem ha-Panim ve-ha-Menorah ve-Reah ha-Nihoah
[The Reason for the Table, the Bread upon it, the Candelabrum, and
the Burning of Incense],39 in which he presents himself once again as
bringing Maimonides’ work to completion—this time his explanation of
the reasons for the commandments, which, Maimonides acknowledges,
he had been unable to complete: “a few commandments [. . .] remain
whose cause has not become clear to me [‫ ]לם יתבין לי סבבהא‬up to
now” (Guide III, 26; Eng. 510 / Heb. 468 / Ar. 371). Among these are
the commandments of the table that must stand in the sanctuary and
of the bread that must permanently be placed upon it.40 Ibn Tibbon
begins his composition by explaining why the reasons for these com-
mandments had eluded Maimonides, and goes on to declare that “He
Who grants man knowledge has graced me with knowledge of [their]

On the “holy spirit,” see Guide II, 45.
On this work, see Y. Tzvi Langermann, “A New Collection of Texts in Medieval
Jewish Philosophy,” Qiryat Sefer 64 (1992–1993), pp. 1428–1430 [Hebrew].
See Guide III, 45, where Maimonides explains the reasons for the commandments
associated with the Temple: “As for the table and the bread that was always to be upon
it [cf. Ex. 25:23–30], I do not know the reason for this and I have not found up to now
something to which I might ascribe this practice” (Eng. 578 / Heb. 537 / Ar. 423).
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reasons.”41 Given this shared source of inspiration, Ibn Tibbon’s com-

mentary on Ecclesiastes appears thus to be the natural continuation of
the Guide’s philosophical-exegetical project. Thus, someone interested
in the “golden apples” of all biblical books cannot rely on the Guide
alone, but must study the commentary on Ecclesiastes as well.
And there is more: In Ibn Tibbon’s view, his contribution to Mai-
monides’ legacy was not exhausted by the completion of his teacher’s
work. In MYM, he presents himself as Maimonides’ successor in the
series of Jewish sages who transmit the Law’s concealed wisdom to
their disciples. As a disciple, Ibn Tibbon acquired wisdom by studying
Maimonides’ works. After having completed his studies he is ready to
assume the role of sage and teacher himself who continues the work
of transmission. But why are Maimonides’ writings which he had
translated insufficient for that task? How does he explain the need for
new treatises? Ibn Tibbon adopted Maimonides’ fundamental assump-
tion that the Law has two sides: a hidden side directed toward the
intellectual elite (“the secrets of the Law”), and a public side directed
toward the multitude—in other words, “golden apples in settings of
silver.” For Ibn Tibbon, however, the relationship between these two
sides is not static. The sages, to whom the Law’s secret teachings were
revealed, have, in fact, a twofold task: they must pass on the secrets to
their disciples, and they must reconfigure the Law’s public teachings
in accordance with the specific conditions of their cultural context
which determine the multitude’s capacity to understand.42 This doctrine
allows Ibn Tibbon to present Maimonides’ writings as expressing the
wisdom legacy in a way contingent upon the circumstances of his time
and place, i.e., contingent upon the conditions of understanding that
prevailed in the 12th century Muslim world. But from Maimonides to
Samuel ibn Tibbon—that is, from Muslim Egypt in the 12th century
to Christian France in the 13th, the conditions of understanding had
sufficiently changed to require the replacement of Maimonides’ version
of the Law’s teachings through a version adapted to Ibn Tibbon’s own
time and place:

Published in D. Abrams, R. Asher b. David, Complete Works, Los Angeles: Cherub
Press, 1996, p. 143.
This developmental model has been explained in detail by A. Ravitzky; see his
“Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon” (above, no. 1), pp. 36–41; cf. also Robinson, Commentary
on Ecclesiastes (above, no. 1), chapter 2.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 199

And the master, the teacher of righteousness, the great sage, the divine
philosopher and Torah scholar [‫]הפילוסוף התוריי האלהי‬, our master
Moses, son of the great Rabbi Maimon, may the memory of the righ-
teous be for a blessing—when he, too, saw that only a few were left who
understand the indications [‫ ]הרמזים‬made by those who spoke through
the holy spirit, and the prophets, and the rabbinic sages, who had added
to the exposition of the Law’s secrets [‫]אשר הרחיבו בסתרי התורה‬, he
[in turn] added to their indications an explanation, likewise by means of
indications, in many places [. . .]. And I, the young one coming after him,
saw that only very few were left who understand his indications, and even
less who understand the indications of Scripture. Moreover, I saw the
true sciences, which have become very widespread among the nations,
under whose rule I live, and in their countries, more widespread than in
the Muslim countries. [As a consequence] I became aware of the great
need to enlighten the eyes of the intellectuals [‫ ]להאיר עיני המשכילים‬by
means of that which God, exalted be He, graciously let me know and
understand with regard to his [Maimonides’] words, and with regard to
the issues concerning which he had widened the holes in the settings of
silver [‫ ]הרחיב בנקבי המשכיות‬that cover the apples of the parables of
the prophets, of those who speak through the holy spirit, and of the rab-
binic sages. And [I also saw the great need to enlighten the eyes of the
intellectuals] with regard to what I understand concerning the words of
the Torah, of the prophets, of those who speak through the holy spirit,
and of the rabbinic sages. I revealed, therefore, in this treatise [. . .] what
I revealed concerning [things] that nobody had revealed before, so that
we may not become a disgrace in the eyes of our neighbors, an object
of mockery and derision for those around us [. . .]. And I have put my
trust in God [. . .] and I ask Him to draw me near, and to draw near all
those who judge me favorably among the seekers of wisdom who under-
stand this treatise. And the truth that will be apprehended through [this
treatise] is the knowledge of the true God [‫והאמת אשר בו תושג ידיעת‬
‫]אלהי אמת‬. (MYM, 174–175)
In his independent treatises, therefore, and in particular in MYM, Ibn
Tibbon claims to be doing what Maimonides did in the Guide: adding
new explanations to the writings of his predecessors, widening “the
holes in the settings of silver,” and presenting the Law’s secrets in terms
suited to his cultural context. The difference between them is that a
new source had become available to Ibn Tibbon, namely the writings
of Maimonides himself. MYM thus stands in relation to the Guide as the
Guide stands in relation to rabbinic literature, which contained the most
recent exposition of the Law’s wisdom before Maimonides. Whereas
rabbinic literature was an expression of this wisdom appropriate for
the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud and the Guide its expression
appropriate for the time of Maimonides, MYM is its expression appro-
priate for the time of Ibn Tibbon. It follows that for a contemporary of
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Ibn Tibbon, who lived in the same cultural context, the shortest path
leading to “knowledge of the true God” was no longer the Guide, but
rather MYM. While Ibn Tibbon started out as Maimonides’ “son and
student,” toward the end of his career, he clearly saw himself ready to
become Maimonides’ successor. He thus began with the translation of
the Guide, continued with its completion, and concluded by replacing
it! From the point of view of the wisdom contained in the Guide, there
is, of course, no real distinction: as the Guide’s translator, Ibn Tibbon
transferred it from one language to another language, whereas as the
author of MYM, he transferred it from the “settings of silver” suited
to one historical-cultural context to the “settings of silver” suited to
another historical-cultural context.

3. The Bookshelf of the Arabic Falāsifa

Ibn Tibbon’s work is tied in yet another way to that of Maimonides. He

was the first to translate the philosophical sources, which are required
for achieving human perfection and which provide the replacement
key to the “secrets of the Law” after the wisdom of the prophets had
been lost. He translated Aristotle’s Meteorology as Sefer Otot ha-Shamayim
[Book of the Celestial Signs] and Averroes’s Sheloshah Ma amarim al
ha-Devequt [Three Treatises on Conjunction],43 and made use of both
of them in his philosophical exegesis: The Three Treatises provided the
conceptual framework for his explanation in PQ of what in his view
was King Solomon’s polemic against the skeptical school of his time,
which denied the possibility of the soul’s immortality.44 In MYM, he
employed the Book of Celestial Signs as the key for understanding the
“secrets” of the biblical Account of the Beginning, identified by Maimonides
with “natural science,” of which Meteorology was a part according to
the medieval classification of the sciences.45

Sefer Otot ha-Shamayim, ed. R. Fontaine, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995; Sheloshah Ma amarim
al ha-Devequt [the third treatise is attributed to Averroes’ son, Abdallah], Heb. trans. S.
Ibn Tibbon, ed. J. Hercz, Berlin, 1869.
On PQ , see Robinson, Commentary on Ecclesiastes (above, no. 1).
See the entry “hokhmat ha-teva [natural science]” in PMZ, pp. 50–51. The Meteo-
rology was listed as the fourth book on natural science. The relationship between the
translation of Sefer Otot ha-Shamayim and the issues discussed in MYM was elucidated by
A. Ravitzky; see his “Aristotle’s Meteorology and Maimonidean Exegesis of the Account
of Creation,” in Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 9 (1990), pp. 225–250 [Hebrew].
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 201

We are now, I believe, in a position to see how the different parts

of Ibn Tibbon’s work fit together: the dissemination of Maimonides’
writings, and in particular of the Guide, in order to ground the inter-
pretation of Judaism as a philosophical religion that justified the study
of philosophy in a religious setting; the composition of his independent
treatises as completion and update of Maimonides’ philosophical-
exegetical project; finally, the translation of philosophical and scientific
texts required for achieving “human perfection,” and for apprehending
the “golden apples” in the Torah’s “settings of silver.” It is interesting to
note in this context that the texts which, in fact, were translated from
Arabic to Hebrew in the course of the 13th century reflect for the most
part the instructions that Maimonides gave in his letter to Ibn Tibbon
with regard to the authors who are worthy to be studied. S. Harvey
convincingly argued that this letter determined the translations carried
out in the 13th century to a considerable extent, but in my view at
least some of the credit for this ought to be given to Ibn Tibbon.46 It
is fair to assume that on his authority, Maimonides’ list of “books that
are worthy to be read on those sciences and the books which are not
worthy wasting my time reading them”47 became as it were a guide for
the translators, the first of whom was, after all, Ibn Tibbon himself.
Evidence for this is found in the fact that among the important transla-
tors most were in some way related to him, for example his son, Moses
ibn Tibbon, his son-in-law, Jacob Anatoli, and his grandson, Jacob b.
Makhir.48 They did, however, not only continue the translation program
of philosophical and scientific sources, required for understanding the
“secrets of the Torah.” They also carried on the parallel exegetical
project intended to demonstrate that philosophy and Law agree.49

On the relationship between the translation of Sheloshah Ma amarim and the issues dis-
cussed in PQ , see A. Ravitzky, “The Secrets of the Guide of the Perplexed: Between the
Thirteenth and the Twentieth Century,” in Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 5 (1985),
p. 50 [Hebrew].
See his “Maimonides’ Letter” (above, no. 14), pp. 51–70.
This is how Ibn Tibbon characterizes the list in his translation of Maimonides’
letter to him that was published by I. Sonne, “Maimonides’ Letter to Samuel b. Tib-
bon according to an Unknown Copy found in the Archive of the Jewish Community
in Verona,” Tarbiz 10 (1939), p. 332 [Hebrew].
See the references to the works they translated in the index to M. Steinschneider,
Die Hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher, Berlin, 1893. Cf.
also the surveys in Freudenthal, “La Réception” (above, no. 6) and M. Zonta, La filosofia
antica nel Medioevo ebraico, Brescia, 1996.
See Ravitzky, Teachings of R. Zerahyah (above, no. 1), chapter 1, in particular p. 1.
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It is clear, then, that in several respects Ibn Tibbon’s contribution was

crucial for the transformation of Jewish culture in thirteenth-century
Christian Europe. Taking his role into account, it is indeed justified to
describe the intellectual tradition in Jewish thought, which emerged
from this transformation, with A. Ravitzky as “Maimonidean-Tibbonian

4. Ibn Tibbon and the History of Philosophy in Arabic and Hebrew

If we now consider the general picture of the history of philosophy in

Arabic and Hebrew, we can point out an interesting connection between
the works of al-Fārābī, Maimonides, and Ibn Tibbon.51 Al-Fārābī was
the founder of the falsafa movement in the ninth century, and saw
himself as renewing the ancient philosophical tradition which in his
view culminated in the works of Plato and Aristotle.52 “In Aristotle’s
time,” he states, “theoretical and universal practical philosophy were
perfected [‫ ]وﺗﳬﻞ اﻟﻔﻠﺴﻔﺔ اﻟﻠﻨﻈﺮﯾﺔ واﻟﻌﻤﻠﻴﺔ اﻟﳫﻴﺔ‬to the point that no room
was left for inquiry. Philosophy, therefore, became a craft [‫]ﺻﻨﺎﻋﺔ‬, which
is only studied and taught.”53 In al-Fārābī’s view philosophy should
be at the very center of society, and in order to create the required

See Ravitzky, id., chapter 1. It is important to emphasize, however, that despite
the shared characteristics, this is not a homogenous intellectual tradition; see id., p. 3,
and the issues discussed later in Ravitzky’s book. As members of Ibn Tibbon’s circle
in the thirteenth century Ravitzky mentions Jacob Anatoli, Moses Ibn Tibbon, Moses
of Salerno, and Zerahyah ben Shealtiel Hen, documenting the impact Ibn Tibbon
had on their works; see id., pp. 22–34. At the same time, he notes that Ibn Tibbon’s
influence was not confined to this circle, citing numerous examples of his influence on
additional thinkers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; see id., pp. 34–40.
My claim, of course, is not that al-Fārābī was the only one of the Muslim falāsifa
who influenced Maimonides, but with regard to the issue under consideration, his work
was in my opinion Maimonides’ most important source. On Maimonides in the context
of the Aristotelian school in Spain, see J.L. Kraemer, “Maimonides and the Spanish
Aristotelian School,” in M.D. Meyerson and E.D. English, eds., Christians, Muslims,
and Jews in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Interaction and Cultural Change, Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1999, pp. 40–68.
See the account attributed to him by Ibn Abī U aybi a in Uyūn al-Anbā fī abaqāt
al-A ibbā , ed. A. Müller, Königsberg, 1884, vol. II, 134–135 on “the emergence of phi-
losophy in Islam” and of his role in it. Interestingly, this account makes no reference
to al-Kindi, apparently because al-Fārābī did not consider him a true philosopher. The
extent to which the account is reliable is a matter of controversy, but for my present
purpose it suffices that it shows that al-Fārābī saw himself as initiating the re-emergence
of philosophy in the Muslim world.
Kitāb al- urūf [Book of Letters], ed. M. Mahdi, Beirut, 1990, book 2, sec. 143.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 203

space for it in a culture dominated by religion, he used its conceptual

framework to explain how revealed religion came into existence, and
how it was used as a “tool” by philosophers for the instruction “of the
multitude in theoretical or practical matters that have been inferred
in philosophy, in the ways that enable [the multitude] to understand
them, [namely] by persuasion [‫ ]إﻗﻨﺎع‬or imaginative representation
[‫ ]ﺗﺨﻴﻴﻞ‬or both.”54 The “revelation [‫ ”]وىح‬received by the prophet is the
apprehension of the intelligibles which emanate on both his rational
and his imaginative faculty.55 Their emanation on his rational faculty
makes him into “a wise man and philosopher [‫]ﺣﻜﻴﻤﺎ ﻓﻴﻠﺴﻮﻓﺎ‬,” whereas
their emanation on his imaginative faculty makes him into a “prophet
[‫]ﻧﺒﻴﺎ‬.”56 The imaginative faculty receives the content of the theoretical
and practical intellect by “imitating them [‫ ”]ﺗﺤـﺎﻛـﻴﻬا‬through the associa-
tion of data provided by the senses.57 Its task, therefore, is to translate
as it were intellectual notions which represent things as they truly are,
into “parables [‫ ]ﻣﺜﺎﻻت‬that imitate them” for the multitude who cannot
understand them otherwise.58 The understanding of these matters is
required of every citizen in a “perfect city,” in which the city’s founders
aim at “directing [the citizens] to happiness [‫]اﻟﺴﻌﺎدة‬.”59 It is important

Id., book 2, sec. 108. Cf. Ta sīl al-Sa āda in Al-A māl al-Falsafīya, ed. J. Al-Yasin,
Beirut, 1992, p. 185. It should be added that in al-Fārābī’s scheme, the speculative and
legal traditions, Kalām and Fiqh (al-Fārābī employs in this context the standard Islamic
terms), occupied a rank still below that of revealed religion, whose servants they were.
Philosophy, therefore, rules the entire system of the sciences. Cf. Kitāb al- urūf, book
2, sec. 110. Numerous sources and parallels for al-Fārābī’s doctrines were noted by
R. Walzer in his edition and Eng. trans. of Kitāb Mabādi Ārā Ahl al-Madīna al-Fā ila,
Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
On revelation as a result of intellectual perfection, cf. Kitāb al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya,
ed. F.M. Najjar, Beirut, 1964, pp. 49–50; note, however, that there al-Fārābī neither
mentions the role of the imaginative faculty nor uses the term “prophet.”
This is the concept of prophecy in al-Madīna al-Fā ila, chap. 15, sec. 10. Its influ-
ence on Maimonides’ definition of prophecy in Guide II, 36 is obvious. Note, however,
that other conceptions can be found as well in the writings of both al-Fārābī and Mai-
monides. On al-Fārābī’s concept of the prophet, see R. Walzer, “Al-Fārābī’s Theory of
Prophecy and Divination,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 77 (1957), pp. 142–148. On the
different concepts of prophecy in al-Fārābī and Maimonides, see J. Macy, “Prophecy
in al-Fārābī and Maimonides: The Imaginative and Rational Faculties,” in Maimonides
and Philosophy, Dordrecht, 1986, pp. 185–201.
Al-Madīna al-Fā ila, chap. 14, sec. 7.
Id., chap. 17, sec. 2; cf. al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya, pp. 55–57; Ta sīl, pp. 40–41.
Id., chap. 15, sec. 10; cf. I a al- Ulūm, ed. U. Amin, Cairo, 1948, pp. 102–103;
al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya, p. 48 ff.; Ta sīl, pp. 41–42. The matters which the citizens of
the best state must know appear to include the whole of theoretical and practical phi-
losophy which al-Fārābī summarizes in this treatise. See the list of topics in chap. 17,
sec. 1; a shorter list appears in al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya, p. 55.
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to note that among those who at first receive the relevant doctrines
in form of parables, there are some who in the course of their study
advance toward the truth, and as a consequence reject the imitations as
false. A student of this sort, according to al-Fārābī, must be “elevated”
step by step, and should his abilities suffice, must finally be admitted to
the level of the philosophers, where he exchanges the parables for the
apprehension of things as they truly are.60
According to Maimonides, “everything composed” by al-Fārābī is
like “fine flour, and it is possible for man to gain understanding and
knowledge from his words, for he was exceedingly wise [‫היה מופלג‬
‫( ”]בחכמה‬Letters, 553). In two ways, Maimonides work is closely tied to
al-Fārābī’s:61 first, Maimonides is the pre-eminent Jewish representative
of the falsafa tradition, and his writings are based on its characteristic
texts whose study he recommends to Ibn Tibbon, as we saw above.62
Second, in his interpretation of Judaism as a philosophical religion,
Maimonides used the main components of the model that al-Fārābī
had developed for explaining the relationship between philosophy and
revealed religion.63 The religion’s founders were perfect philosophers, its
commandments lead to philosophical contemplation, which, according
to al-Fārābī, brings about “the highest happiness,”64 and the structure
of the Mosaic Law reflects the two faculties of the soul that collaborate
in prophetic revelation: it speaks “in the language of the sons of man,”
which is “the imagination of the multitude [‫( ”]אלכ'יאל אלג'מהורי‬Guide
I, 26; Eng. 56 / Heb. 49 / Ar. 38), but also contains indications of
“the truth as it is” (Guide I, Introduction; Eng. 12 / Heb. 11 / Ar. 8).
Moreover, we can say that in a sense the aim of the Guide is to “elevate”
the perplexed intellectual from the level of parables that constitute the

Al-Madīna al-Fā ila, chap. 17, sec. 4.
Many studies have been devoted to Maimonides’ relationship to al-Fārābī; see in
particular L. Berman, “Maimonides, the Disciple of Alfarabi”, in Israel Oriental Studies
4 (1974), pp. 154–178.
On the correspondence between Maimonides’ recommendations and his sources,
see Pines, “Introduction” (above, no. 3), who uses the list provided in Maimonides’
letter to Ibn Tibbon as his point of departure for describing the sources of the Guide
(cf. pp. lix–lx).
In a similar way, these components were adopted by Muslim philosophers in their
interpretation of Islam as a philosophical religion; cf. Berman, “Disciple of Alfarabi”
(above, no. 61), p. 155, no. 5.
Al-Madīna al-Fā ila, chap. 15, sec. 11; cf. id., chap. 13, sec. 5 and Risāla fī al- Aql,
ed. M. Bouyges, Beirut, 1938, p. 31.
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 205

public teachings of the Law, to the level of true doctrines that constitute
its secret teachings.65
Let us now turn to Ibn Tibbon’s role. Al-Fārābī’s political philosophy
intended to provide a general justification for the central place of falsafa
in a religious society. Maimonides’ work intended to justify the use of
falsafa in Judaism in particular, as a replacement for the lost wisdom of
the prophets. Ibn Tibbon, finally, transformed this justification into the
conceptual framework within which Jewish philosophy developed until
the time of Spinoza, and that made the Hebrew chapter in the history
of Western philosophy possible through the translation and reception
of the works of the falāsifa in the Jewish communities in Christian
Europe. We can highlight the importance of Ibn Tibbon’s role, if we
compare Maimonides’ work to that of the great Jewish philosopher in
Antiquity, Philo of Alexandria. Like Maimonides, Philo too attempted
to transform Judaism into a philosophical religion in the cultural set-
ting of the Hellenistic period, and their projects, in fact, resemble

I do not mean to deny the existence of significant differences between Maimo-
nides and al-Fārābī. For example, for Maimonides philosophy attained perfection not
in Aristotle’s time but in the time of Moses; he claims, moreover, that in general the
prophets were on a higher intellectual level than “the men of science” (Guide III, 51,
Eng. 619 / Heb. 580 / Ar. 456), and that, although Aristotle’s “intellect represents the
highest achievement of the human intellect,” he nevertheless remained below the level
of the prophets, “who received God’s emanation” (Letters, 553). Whereas al-Fārābī saw
himself as the successor of Plato and Aristotle, Maimonides saw himself as the successor
of the sages of Israel, from Abraham to the rabbinic sages, employing Greco-Arabic
philosophy only as a replacement for their lost wisdom. It is, however, noteworthy that
al-Fārābī as well mentions the legend about the antiquity of philosophy, relating how
it was passed on from ancient Babylonia to Egypt, and from Egypt to Greece (Ta sīl,
pp. 38–39). This legend served as a justification for the translation of philosophical
and scientific works from Greek into Arabic, for it presents the translation as a restora-
tion of ancient wisdom; cf. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (above, no. 13), chap. 2.
A further difference between Maimonides and al-Fārābī is due to the fact that the
agreement between philosophy and religion that al-Fārābī had based on the claim
that religion is merely an imitation of philosophy devised by the imaginative faculty,
was later vehemently criticized by al-Ghazālī, in particular in his Tahāfut al-Falāsifa. In
my view one can identify a whole stratum in the Guide’s argumentation that responds
to this critique. The clearest example is the issue of the world’s eternity or creation.
The independent treatises of Averroes illustrate well how seriously the philosophers of
Andalusia took al-Ghazālī. Tahāfut al-Tahāfut, Fasl al-Maqāl, and Kitāb al-Kashf show all
three how Averroes attempted to come to terms with the attack on philosophy. Perhaps
one could say that while Averroes tries to refute the critique, Maimonides integrates
it into the exoteric argumentation of the Guide. Be that as it may, it seems that by
the time of Maimonides and Averroes, the falāsifa could no longer adopt al-Fārābī’s
philosophical project without responding to al-Ghazālī’s critique.
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each other in numerous ways.66 Unlike Maimonides’ writings, however,

the writings of Philo exerted no influence on Jewish thought outside
of Hellenistic-Jewish culture.67 It is interesting to note in this context,

For example, also according to Philo, Moses “attained the summit of philosophy,”
and the Mosaic Law addresses its audience on two levels: on one it is concerned with
the “education of the multitude [τῶν πολλῶν διδασκαλίαν],” who are “the lovers of
the body;” on another it presents “the truth that is absolutely certain” to the “lov-
ers of the soul” (Deus 51–56). The Law’s purpose is to guide toward the “imitation
of God [ὁµοίωσις θεῷ];” the “royal road” that leads to God (that is, to the “King of
the universe”) is “true philosophy,” and “true philosophy” is identical to “the word
of God” (Post. 101–102). Contemplation of God denotes “the beginning and the end
of happiness” (QE II, 51), and this goal is attained by “the intellect when it is seized
by divine love” (Somn. II, 32). In addition to Philo, one can also make mention of
philosophers who preceded Maimonides in the Middle Ages, in particular Abraham
ibn Daud; in fact, Maimonides himself refers to “the Andalusians among the people
of our nation, all of [whom] cling to the affirmations of the philosophers and incline
to their opinions, in so far as these do not ruin the foundation of the Law” (Guide I,
71; Eng. 177 / Heb. 152 / Ar. 122). The similarities between Ibn Daud’s project and
Maimonides’ are again striking. Ibn Daud’s aim is to clarify the “agreement [‫]הסכמה‬
between philosophy and religion” for the intellectual who fell into “perplexity [‫]בלבול‬,”
because he is unable to hold “in his right hand the light of his religion, and in his left
the light of his wisdom” (ha-Emunah ha-Ramah [The Exalted Faith], Heb. trans. Solomon
b. Labi, Frankfurt a. M., 1852, Introduction); As in Maimonides, the solution is exegeti-
cal: one must show to the perplexed intellectual that the Law and wisdom speak with
one voice (ER II, 6); to that end, every verse must be interpreted figuratively “whose
literal sense is in contradiction with something to which the intellect bears witness” (ER,
Introduction). The revelation to the prophets consists in that their intellect receives the
intellegibles that emanate from the active intellect; and at the highest level of prophecy,
the prophet’s intellect becomes like the “exalted substances,” i.e., the separate intellects
(ER II, 5). On Ibn Daud, see T.A.M. Fontaine, In Defence of Judaism—Abraham Ibn Daud:
Sources and Structures of ha-Emunah ha-Ramah, Assen and Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1990;
A. Oren, From the Simple Faith to the Exalted Faith: The Pre-Maimonidean Thought of Abraham
Ibn Daud, Tel-Aviv, 1998 [Hebrew].
By contrast, Philo exercised a decisive influence on the development of Christian
philosophy in the time of the Church Fathers; for an overview, see D.T. Runia, Philo in
Early Christian Literature—A Survey, Assen: Van Gorcum; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
Philo thus contributed to the fact that Christian thought from its inception incorporated
philosophical doctrines. This early encounter with philosophy perhaps explains why
medieval Christian culture did not require to the same extent as medieval Judaism a
justifying framework for the reception of philosophical and scientific works—such as
Ibn Tibbon attempted to construe on the basis of Maimonides’ writings. Nonetheless it
is interesting to note that the Latin translation of the Guide in fact was used by the first
Christian philosophers who were dealing with the integration of the newly translated
Greco-Arabic philosophical literature—among them Albertus Magnus, and Thomas
Aquinas. To a degree they likewise made use of the Guide in order to define the place
of falsafa within their religious tradition, for the goal of “Rabbi Moyses Iudaeus,” in the
words of Thomas Aquinas, was “to bring into agreement [concordare]” the teachings
of Aristotle and of revealed religion (Summa Theologiae I, qu. 50, a.3). For a general
survey of Maimonides’ influence on Christian thought, see. J. Guttmann, “Der Einfluss
der maimonidischen Philosophie auf das christliche Abendland,” in W. Bacher et al.,
eds., Moses ben Maimon—Sein Leben, Seine Werke und Sein Einfluss, Leipzig: Buchhandlung
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 207

that some rabbinic circles were probably acquainted with Philo’s work
which had been brought to Palestine in the library of Origen—one of
the first Christian philosophers—when he was forced to leave Alex-
andria in the third century and subsequently settled in Caesarea.68 It
appears, therefore, plausible to assume that the profound influence
exerted by Maimonides’ writings is in part the result of the efforts that
Ibn Tibbon put into their dissemination, although other circumstances
contributed to that influence as well, above all the openness of many
Jewish communities in Southern France toward Judeo-Arabic culture,
and their willingness to support its reception. This is especially true of
the community in Lunel, where Ibn Tibbon carried out the translation
of the Guide.69

Gustav Fock, 1908, pp. 135–230; W. Kluxen, “Maimonides and Latin Scholasticism,”
in S. Pines and Y. Yovel, eds., Maimonides and Philosophy (above, no. 56), pp. 224–232.
Cf. D. Barthélemy, “Est-ce Hoshaya Rabba qui censura le ‘Commentaire Allé-
gorique’? ” in Philon d’Alexandrie: Lyon, 11–15 septembre 1966, Paris: Centre National de
la Recherche Scientifique, 1967.
See the remarks of Ibn Tibbon’s father concerning R. Meshullam bar Jacob, head
of the Lunel community at the time, in the “Preface” to his Heb. trans. of Bahya ibn
Paquda’s Duties of the Heart (above, no. 4): “A remnant of our people also found refuge
in Christian lands, and among them were, from ancient times, great sages in the science
of Torah and Talmud. But they did not study the other sciences, because their Torah
was their craft, and because books on the other sciences were not available to them.
[This situation continued] until the pure candlestick was fixed among them, the lamp
of commandment and Torah, the great master, the pious and holy Rabbi Meshullam,
may his lamp shine, son of the venerable sage, Rabbi Jacob, of blessed memory. The
pure, refined oil of his understanding made the lamp of wisdom continuously burn
and his soul was conjoined with his God’s Torah and with the fear of God. He made
wisdom his cup and his portion, and he longed for the books of wisdom composed by
the geonim. To the extent of his ability, he collected, disseminated, and [made] translate
[works belonging to] the science of the law, the science of language, religious science,
style, ethics, and the parables of the wise men, and his hand is like a nest for all their
precious things.” This intellectual openness remained characteristic of the Lunel com-
munity also later. Evidence for this we find in the correspondence between the sages of
Lunel and Maimonides and in their enthusiastic reception of his writings—“for our soul
is bound by our love for them,” as Jonathan ha-Kohen put it in a letter to Maimonides.
Ibn Tibbon, in the preface to his translation, likewise describes “the desire [for the
Guide] of this land’s sages and wise men [. . .] led by the pious priest, R. Jonathan, may
God protect and bless him, and the other sages of Biq at Yeriho [i.e., Lunel], my city of
residence [. . .] and they pleaded in their writings to the great master, R. Maimon, of
blessed memory [. . .] and asked him to send [the Guide] to them” (118).
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5. Opposition to the Interpretation of Judaism as a Philosophic Religion

Finally, I should direct some attention to consequences of a different

kind that can be attributed to Ibn Tibbon’s work. Not only did he have
a considerable impact on medieval Jewish philosophy, and opened the
Hebrew chapter in the history of Western philosophy; he also aroused
considerable opposition.70 His work, in fact, played an important
part in the escalation of the first Maimonidean controversy, which
almost tore Judaism apart and in whose early stages he was personally
involved.71 Indirectly, he contributed to the emergence of positions that
were articulated in opposition to the interpretation of Judaism as a
philosophical religion. The circles, in which this opposition took shape,
favored different interpretations—sometimes more traditional, some-
times kabbalistic—and their adherents were as it were competing with
the philosophers for the authority to determine in what the true essence
of Judaism consists.72 One may say, therefore, that these two contrary
developments that shaped Jewish culture in the thirteenth century—the
dissemination of philosophy and the formation of movements opposing
it—both stemmed in large part from the work of Ibn Tibbon.


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——, I ā al- Ulūm, ed. U. Amin, Cairo, 1948.
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——, Kitāb al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya, ed. F.M. Najjar, Beirut, 1964.
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Cf. Ravitzky, “R. Samuel Ibn Tibbon” (above, no. 1), pp. 20–24.
Cf. C. Fraenkel, “The Problem of Anthropomorphism in a Hitherto Unknown
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covered Letter by David ben Saul,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 11 (2004), pp. 83–126, and
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from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 209

Averroes, Sheloshah Ma amarim al ha-Devequt, Heb. trans. S. Ibn Tibbon, ed. J. Hercz,
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——, “Averroes’ Commentary of the De Intellectu attributed to Alexander,” ed. H.A.
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Philon d’Alexandrie: Lyon, 11–15 septembre 1966, Paris: Centre National de la Recherche
Scientifique, 1967, pp. 45–78.
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and Early Abbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries), London and New York: Rout-
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Abendland,” in W. Bacher et al., eds., Moses ben Maimon—Sein Leben, Seine Werke und
Sein Einfluss, Leipzig: Buchhandlung Gustav Fock, 1908, pp. 135–230.
Harvey, S., “Did Maimonides’ Letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon Determine Which Phi-
losophers Would Be Studied by Later Jewish Thinkers?,” Jewish Quarterly Review 83,
1–2 (1992), pp. 51–70.
Harvey, W.Z., “A Portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean,” Journal of the History of
Philosophy 19 (1981), pp. 151–172.
——, “Between Political Philosophy and Halakhah in Maimonides’ Thought,” Iyyun 29
(1980), pp. 198–212 [Hebrew].
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b. Labi, Frankfurt a.M., 1852.
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Jerusalem, 1927–28.
Ibn Tibbon, Samuel, Ma amar Yiqqavu ha-Mayim, ed. M.L. Bisliches, Pressburg, 1837.
210 carlos fraenkel

——, Perush Qohelet, ed. and partial Eng. trans. J. Robinson, in Philosophy and Exegesis
in Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, doctoral dissertation, Harvard Uni-
versity, 2002.
——, Sefer Otot ha-Shamayim, Heb. trans. of Aristotle’s Meteorology, ed. R. Fontaine,
Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.
Idel, M., “Maimonides and Kabbalah,” in I. Twersky, ed., Studies in Maimonides, Cam-
bridge: Harvard University Press, 1990, pp. 31–79.
Jonathan ha-Kohen, Iggeret le-Rambam, publ. S.A. Wertheimer, in Ginze Yerushalayim, vol.
1, Jerusalem, 1896, pp. 33–35.
Kaplan, L., “ ‘I Sleep But My Heart Waketh’: Maimonides’ Conception of Human
Perfection,” in I. Robinson, L. Kaplan, J. Bauer, eds., The Thought of Moses Maimo-
nides—Philosophical and Legal Studies, Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: The Edwin
Mellen Press, 1990, pp. 130–166.
Kraemer, J.L., “Maimonides and the Spanish Aristotelian School,” in M.D. Meyerson
and E.D. English, eds., Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Medieval and Early Modern Spain:
Interaction and Cultural Change, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999,
pp. 40–68.
Langermann, Y. Tzvi, “A New Source for Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Translation of the Guide
of the Perplexed and his Glosses on it,” Peamim 72 (1997), pp. 51–74 [Hebrew].
——, “A New Collection of Texts in Medieval Jewish Philosophy,” Qiryat Sefer 64
(1992–1993), pp. 1428–1430 [Hebrew].
Macy, J., “Prophecy in al-Fārābī and Maimonides: The Imaginative and Rational
Faculties,” in Pines and Yovel, eds., Maimonides and Philosophy, 1986, pp. 185–201.
Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah, ed. and Hebrew trans. Y. Kafih, Jerusalem:
Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1965.
——, Dalālat al- ā irīn, ed. S. Munk and Y. Yoel, Jerusalem, 1931; Heb. trans. S. ibn
Tibbon, Moreh ha-Nevukhim, ed. Y. Even Shmuel, Jerusalem, 1987; Eng. trans. S. Pines,
The Guide of the Perplexed, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963;
French trans. S. Munk, Le Guide des Egarés, 3 vols., Paris, 1856–1866.
——, Iggerot ha-Rambam, ed. Y. Sheilat, 2 vols, Ma aleh Adumim: Ma aliyot,
——, Maqāla fī Sinā at al-Mantiq, ed. Y. Kafih, Qiryat Ono, 1997.
Oren, A., From the Simple Faith to the Exalted Faith: The Pre-Maimonidean Thought of Abraham
Ibn Daud, Tel-Aviv, 1998 [Hebrew].
Pines, S. and Y. Yovel, eds., Maimonides and Philosophy: papers presented at the sixth Jerusalem
Philosophical Encounters, May 1985, Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986.
Ravitzky, A., “R. Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the
Perplexed,” Daat 10 (1983), pp. 19–46 [Hebrew].
——, “The Secrets of the Guide of the Perplexed: Between the Thirteenth and the Twen-
tieth Century,” in Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 5 (1985), pp. 23–69 [Hebrew].
——, The Teachings of R. Zerahyah b. Isaac b. Shealtiel Hen and Maimonidean-Tibbonian Phi-
losophy in the Thirteenth Century, doctoral dissertation, Jerusalem, 1978 [Hebrew].
——, “Aristotle’s Meteorology and Maimonidean Exegesis of the Account of Creation,”
Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 9 (1990), pp. 225–250 [Hebrew].
Robinson, J., Philosophy and Exegesis in Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, doc-
toral dissertation, Harvard University, 2002.
Runia, D.T., Philo in Early Christian Literature—A Survey, Assen: Van Gorcum; Minne-
apolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
Septimus, B., Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition, Cambridge MA, 1982.
Sirat, C., “Les manuscrits en caractères hébraïques: Réalités d’hier et histoire d’aujourd’hui,”
Scrittura e Civilita 10 (1986), pp. 239–288.
Sonne, I., “Maimonides’ Letter to Samuel b. Tibbon according to an Unknown Copy
found in the Archive of the Jewish Community in Verona,” Tarbiz 10 (1939), pp.
135–154; 309–333 [Hebrew].
from maimonides to samuel ibn tibbon 211

Steinschneider, M., “Die hebräischen Commentare zum ‘Führer’ des Maimonides,” in

A. Freiman and M. Hildesheimer, eds., Festschrift zum Siebzigsten Geburstage A. Berliners,
Frankfurt a.M., 1903, pp. 345–363.
——, Die Hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher, Berlin,
Strauss, L., Philosophie und Gesetz: Beiträge zum Verständnis Maimunis und seiner Vorläufer,
Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1935.
Twersky, I., “Aspects of Social and Cultural History of Provencal Jewry,” Journal of
World History 11 (1968), pp. 185–207.
——, Rabad of Posquières, Cambridge, MA, 1962.
Vajda, G., “An Analysis of the Ma amar yiqqawu ha-Mayim by Samuel b. Judah Ibn
Tibbon,” Journal of Jewish Studies X (1959), 137–149.
van Steenberghen, F., The Philosophical Movement in the Thirteenth Century, Edinburgh:
Nelson, 1955.
Vicaire, M.H. and B. Blumenkranz, Juifs et Judaisme de Languedoc, Toulouse, 1977.
W. Kluxen, “Maimonides and Latin Scholasticism,” in Pines and Yovel, eds., Maimonides
and Philosophy, 1986, pp. 224–232.
Walzer, R., “Al-Fārābī’s Theory of Prophecy and Divination,” Journal of Hellenic Studies
77 (1957), pp. 142–148.
Zonta, M., La filosofia antica nel Medioevo ebraico, Brescia, 1996.

Esti Eisenmann

Among the Hebrew works that have never been printed and are pre-
served only in manuscripts, Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim (Love in Delights) is a
most valuable one.1 It was written by Rabbi Moses ben Judah Noga
(Rambi), a student of Rabbi Yom Tob ben Abraham Ishbili (Ritba),
in the years 1354–1355, probably in Catalonia.
The title of the work, Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim, is borrowed from the Song
of Songs 7:7: ‫ אהבה בתענוגים‬,‫“ ;מה יפית ומה נעמת‬How beautiful and
how pleasant art thou, O love of delights”. However, the book is not
about erotic love. It is about true love, the love of the philosopher for
wisdom and knowledge. Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim is therefore a comprehensive
summary of the physics and metaphysics of the Middle Ages, and also
includes a theological section. Its aim is to explain philosophy and to
demonstrate its harmony with the Scriptures in order to arouse in the
educated reader a passion for such learning.
In this essay I would like to present Rambi’s distinctive attitude
toward Maimonides in Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim. Therefore, after a brief
general exposition on Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim,2 I will describe Rambi’s
attitude toward Maimonides and demonstrate how it is reflected in
his discussions of Maimonides’ views within the general theme of the
Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim contains three sections. The first one summarizes
physics, the second summarizes metaphysics and the third is devoted

The manuscripts are: St. Petersburg, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian
Academy MS C 9 (number at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at
the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem: 69241); Oxford-Bodleian MS
Opp. 141 Neubauer 1292 (number at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts
at the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem: 22106); Moscow, Russian
State Library, MS Guenzburg 1185 (number at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew
Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem: 48935); Oxford-
Bodleian MS Or. 45 Neubauer 1291 (number at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew
Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem: 22105). Here I
shall refer to the St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Studies manuscript.
For a full description see Eisenmann (2000) and Eisenmann (2002).
214 esti eisenmann

to theological issues. In its first two parts, Rambi clearly and system-
atically presents the central topics of physics and metaphysics such as
vacuum, time, place, and so on. In his presentation he explains the
points of dispute between various philosophers and resolves them by
undermining the fundamental arguments that lay behind those views
that he wishes to refute.
From these discussions, one can see that Rambi is a faithful disciple
of Averroes and is consistent in his rejection of the views of Avicenna
and Al-Ghazali. He attacks Avicenna and Al-Ghazali and regards them
as thinkers of a lower standard, who attempted to make a mixture
of religion and philosophy.3 This mixture is invalid since when one is
engaged in philosophy one must accept all the assumptions relating to
philosophy, while when one discusses religious matters, one must accept
the principles of religion.4
In contrast to the flawed philosophy of Avicenna and Al-Ghazali,
Rambi considers Averroes a perfect philosopher, second only to Aris-
totle. He believes that Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle are unbiased
and that they saved the Wise from intellectual perdition.5 Therefore, on
almost every philosophical dispute Rambi decides in favor of Averroes.6
After resolving the disputes, Rambi goes on to demonstrate how the
philosophical opinions, or actually Averroes’ opinions, can be found in
the Torah. For this purpose, Rambi interprets Maimonides’ esoteric
words in The Guide of the Perplexed, and Abraham ibn Ezra’s elusive
secrets in his Commentary on the Torah.
I would like now to describe Rambi’s attitude towards Maimonides.
Rambi is an admirer of Maimonides, and views him not only as the
master of all philosophers, but also as the master of all prophets; he
even calls The Guide of the Perplexed “the sacred book”!7 Rambi is a fiery
opponent of anyone who criticizes Maimonides, and he claims that any
criticism that arises stems from a misunderstanding of Maimonides’
words, rather than from a mistake in Maimonides’ thought.8

One should notice that Rambi does not always follow Averroes. On the contrary,
more than once he digresses from his opinions. Nevertheless, he always presents his
opinions as Averroes’. For some examples see Eisenmann (forthcoming).
24r; 85r; 142r; 189r.

An interesting example is the way he deals with Shem Tov Fala-

quera’s criticism of Maimonides’ proof of the existence of God.9 As
is known, Falaquera wondered how Maimonides, in order to prove
beyond doubt the existence of God, relied on the assumption of the
eternity of the world, an assumption which according to Maimonides
himself, has never been proved at all, and indeed cannot be proved!
Rambi presents this criticism, but does not content himself with a
mere answer. He also prays “that God will save us from falling into the
trap of the wicked! Amen!” In this, he clearly implies that criticizing
Maimonides is wicked.10
One can say, then, that Rambi considers Maimonides to be a kind of
prophet, a conception that leads him to the conclusion that one must
defend Maimonides at all costs—and even by means of far-fetched
interpretations of his words, exactly as one must do, according to
Maimonides himself,11 with regard to words of prophecy when they
contradict philosophy.
Having described Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim and Rambi’s special attitude
toward Maimonides, I would like now to show how this attitude is
reflected in Rambi’s discussions of Maimonides’ views within the general
theme of the encyclopedia. As mentioned, one of the aims of the ency-
clopedia was to harmonize philosophy, or actually Averroes’ philosophy,
with the Torah. However, it seems that when he says “Torah”, Rambi
means not only the Scriptures and the words of the Sages, but also
other Canonized books and Jewish authorities that must be harmonized.
These authorities are (1) Maimonides, whom, as we have seen, Rambi
considers to be a prophet; (2) Abraham Ibn Ezra, whom Rambi, like
most enlightened Jewish scholars of his age, highly estimates; and (3)
the Kabala. As a student of the Ritba, Rambi was well educated in
the Kabala associated with the school of Nahmanides, the Ramban.
In other words, according to Rambi, to harmonize philosophy and the
Torah means to harmonize Averroes’ philosophy with the Scriptures, the
words of the Sages, Maimonides, Abraham Ibn Ezra and the Kabala,
all together. Regarding this conception, I would like now to examine
Rambi’s attitude towards Maimonides in light of three questions:

Shiffman (2001) p. 175.
Maimonides (1963), The Guide of the Perplexed, introduction, vol. 1, p. 15.
216 esti eisenmann

(1) As is well known, Maimonides followed Avicenna on some important

issues, but not Averroes—whom he read several years after he had
consolidated his own philosophical opinions. How then did Rambi
deal with the fact that Maimonides followed Avicenna, in contrast
to his own tendency to follow Averroes?
(2) How did Rambi implement his concept that Torah means not only
the Scriptures and the Sages, but also their various interpretations,
despite the fact that Maimonides and Ibn Ezra each had his own
philosophical way?
(3) How did he implement his concept, despite the fact that Maimo-
nides and the Kabala represent two opposite ways to interpret the

(1) Although Rambi considers Avicenna a thinker of a lower standard

and is even disrespectful of his philosophy, he is careful not to be dis-
respectful of Maimonides who is inclined to follow Avicenna on some
important issues. He is consistent in making a distinction between the
two philosophers even on issues on which they hold the same opinion,
because, as Rambi says: “The light of prophecy was bestowed on
Maimonides in contrast to Avicenna”.12
Rambi’s acceptance of Averroes’ philosophical views alongside his
unconditional admiration for Maimonides leads him to a unique inter-
pretive reconstruction of Maimonides’ views in order to present his
opinions in accordance with those of Averroes, or at least to blur the
differences between them. His interpretive reconstruction is based on
an original and surprising reading of Maimonides’ words. This reading
is often based on a new and creative interpretation of the intentional
contradictions in the Guide, and of its esoteric hints. In one place, Rambi
even explains one of the contradictions in Maimonides’ words as being
an example of a contradiction due to the first or second cause, from
among the seven causes for contradictions listed by Maimonides in the
Introduction to the Guide.13 Rambi does so even though Maimonides
clearly claimed that such contradictions are not found in his book.
Rambi’s clever use of intentional contradictions in Maimonides’
words enables him to find in one of the contradictory propositions an
opinion close to Averroes’ opinion, and to identify that claim as Mai-


monides’ true opinion, even though it is quite clear and self-evident

that it is not.
Examples of this method can be found for some metaphysical top-
ics. Thus, Rambi accepts Averroes’ understanding that God is a form
encompassing all the forms of the world,14 and also the Prime Mover of
the heavenly sphere.15 His originality here lies in bringing these Aver-
roenian views into clear agreement with those of Maimonides, though
Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed followed Avicenna’s philosophy
and claimed that God differs essentially from all other Beings.
Rambi asserts that although in the Guide, part 2, chapter 4, Mai-
monides presented the argument that the Prime Mover, or the Mover
of the highest sphere, cannot be God, since this would presuppose a
similarity between God and other movers of the spheres, he did not
himself accept this argument but only presented it in the name of
Aristotle. Rather, Rambi asserts, Maimonides, like Averroes and unlike
Avicenna, held that God is the Prime Mover; that is, the Mover of the
sphere known as “Aravot”. Maimonides’ true view according to Rambi
is expressed in the Guide, part 1, chapter 70, where he explains that the
noun ‫ רכב‬in the biblical verse ‫( רוכב ערבות‬Psalms 68; 5) “Who rideth
upon the Aravot” is said about God, for He is the Ruler over the sphere
that encompasses all, which is the sphere of Aravot.16
The identification of God with the Prime Mover negates the Avi-
cennian concept of God as Necessary Existent.17 According to Rambi,
who follows Averroes in this issue, this Avicennian view derives from
the distinction between being and existence18—a distinction that itself is
ill-conceived and erroneous.19 Here, too, as in the discussion about God
as the Prime Mover, Rambi insists that Maimonides was not in error as
was Avicenna, but that his distinction between being and existence20 is
only his exoteric view, adopted for polemical purposes against the Kalām,
in order to remove from God all positive attributes.21
Another example of Rambi’s original and surprising reading of
Maimonides is in the discussion of the nature of the human soul.

72v; 171r.
Nasr & Leaman (1996) pp. 793–794.
Nasr & Leaman (1996) pp. 793–796; Davidson (1992) pp. 223–231.
Shehadi (1982) pp. 83–85; Nasr & Leaman (1996), pp. 240–241.
Maimonides (1963) vol. 1, 1: 57, pp. 132–133.
218 esti eisenmann

Rambi accepted Averroes’ view on the soul, as presented in his Middle

Commentary on the De Anima, as it was understood by most medieval
Jewish philosophers.22 According to this view, the hylic intellect consists
of two parts: the first is a physical substrate upon which the material
intellect rests, which is in the faculty of imagination; the second is
the Active Intellect that rests upon the physical substrate. Therefore the
individual’s hylic intellect is none other than one of the aspects of the
Active Intellect, and it has no separate or independent existence.
Here Rambi raises the reasonable question: How can the Active
Intellect, which consists of all the forms in actuality, change its essence
and become the hylic intellect, which is only a preparation for acquir-
ing individual intellect, and therefore contains no form at all?!23 Rambi
explains that, indeed, the nature of the Active Intellect that enters the
human soul does not change of its own accord but on account of its
entering the body.
In order to explain how a substance can seem to have been changed
but actually not change at all, he compares it to an onyx stone that falls
into the sand. Just as the onyx stone does not lose its essential nature
through being mixed with sand, yet, it does not shine as is its nature
because of the sand, so too, the Active Intellect does not lose its own
nature, yet the matter darkens, so to speak, the Active Intellect and
shades its intellectual forms, and so it becomes a hylic intellect.
Rambi claims that just as when the onyx stone is separated from the
sand it shines again, as is its nature, so too, according to Averroes, in
the conjunction between the hylic intellect and the Active Intellect, the
hylic intellect reverts back to its original nature. At this stage the human
intellect has the knowledge of all forms at once, achieved through
knowledge of the essence of the Active Intellect.24 Thus, in the state
of the conjunction as it is post mortem, that is, the state of immortality
and eternal bliss, there is no place for the individual intellect, which is
a result of the abstraction of imaginative forms or phantasmata, and
the individual intellect is wholly destroyed. Thus, there simply is no
individual immortality.
As in the case of metaphysics, so too with regard to psychology,
Rambi reads Maimonides’ statements on the soul through the glasses

Ivry (2000); Davidson (1992) pp. 223–228.

of Averroes. Maimonides’ opinion on the soul differs from Averroes’

opinion in two main areas: (1) he did not describe the hylic intellect
as being part of the Active Intellect; in consequence, (2) he viewed the
conjunction as a continuation of acquiring individual intellect, and
indeed as its climax, and surely did not exclude it from the state of
intellectual immortality, and eternal bliss (if in fact, he believed such a
state to be possible at all).
In order to harmonize Maimonides and Averroes, Rambi subtly
describes the stage of the Averroean conjunction with the phrase: “the
intellect that is acquired and emanated and is not a body or a force in
the body”25 (‫)השכל הנקנה והנאצל שאינו גוף ואינו כח בגוף‬. Now, this
crucial phrase is borrowed from the Guide, part I, chapter 72, where
Maimonides describes the gradually acquired intellect. The purpose
of this choice of terminology to describe Averroes’ conjunction is no
doubt to interpret Maimonides in light of Averroes, and to ascribe to
him Averroes’ opinions on the soul. In a word: to Averroize Maimo-
nides. According to Rambi, one has to read Maimonides’ comments
on the acquired intellect in Guide, I, 72, in light of Averroes’ theory
of conjunction.
(2) I would like to continue to the second and third points in ques-
tion: how Rambi implements his concept that Torah, which is identi-
fied with Averroes’ philosophy, means not only the Scriptures and the
Sages, but also their various interpretations and how Rambi’s special
attitude towards Maimonides is reflected in this.
Throughout the book, Rambi presents Maimonides’ views as identi-
cal with those of Ibn Ezra in his Commentary on the Torah. In this, there
is no need to bridge the gap between Ibn Ezra and Averroes, because
it is reconciled through Maimonides. Maimonides is Averroes and Ibn
Ezra is Maimonides, thus Averroes is Ibn Ezra. Which is to say: the
Torah is Averroes.
Now, some strange things follow from the identification of Ibn Ezra
with Maimonides. Despite the fact that Maimonides absolutely rejected
astrology, Rambi presents him as if he agreed with Ibn Ezra’s astro-
logical notions.26 He thus explains Maimonides’ theory on providence,27
according to which the level of providence is a function of the level

Langermann (1993).
Maimonides (1963) vol. 2, 3: 17, pp. 464–474.
220 esti eisenmann

of knowledge, by the fact that the prophet, as far as his knowledge

is concerned, knows all the astrological reasons for the good and evil
Moreover, Ibn Ezra claimed in his Commentary on the Torah that when
the prophet conjoins with the One, he even can change the influence of
the stars on the sublunary world.28 Rambi explains this conjunction in
light of Averroes’ theory, described above, of the conjunction with the
Active Intellect. According to this theory, he also explains Maimonides’
words in the Guide 3:51, that when the prophet or the philosopher
does not conjoin with God, he is affected by chance. Rambi therefore
explains that when the prophet’s soul does not conjoin with the Active
Intellect, he is affected by chance since he is subject to the disposition
of the stars and constellations.29 Thus, Rambi deftly turns Maimonides’
theory on providence into Ibn Ezra’s theory.
(3) Yet, for Rambi, not only does Maimonides equal Averroes and Ibn
Ezra, he also equals the Kabala! Rambi interprets the Kabalistic theory
of the ten sefirot according to the Aristotelian doctrine of metaphysics.
The separate intellects are a part of God Himself, being part of the
world’s intellectual and formative system. In order to describe the unity
between God and the separate intellects, he often employs the image of
two points joined by a line having seven parts. This line probably alludes
to the influx that passes from intellect to intellect. Rambi holds that this
line is also expressed in the Hebrew letter, vav, the third letter of the
Tetragrammaton.30 One may therefore conclude that Rambi holds that
the ten separate intellects are identical to the ten sefirot; but in making
this identification, he gives the ten sefirot a radically anti-mythological
philosophical interpretation. He “averroizes” the sefirot.
The Active Intellect, the direct cause for the occurrence of the
prophecy, is identified by Rambi with God’s Kavod. He recalls31 that
Na manides attacked Maimonides for attributing to Onqelos the view
that the Kavod was created and is not a part of the essence of God.
If it was so, then when we bless Him with the words ‫ברוך שם כבוד‬
‫מלכותו לעולם ועד‬, “Blessed be the Name of the Glory (Kavod) of his
Kingdom”, we will be, according to Onqelos as Maimonides interprets

The long commentary to Exodus 23:25.

him, behaving like idol worshipers—that is, we would be attributing

divinity to a created thing.32
Rambi claims that Maimonides had two meanings for the term
Kavod, and one of them refers to the Active Intellect.33 In his creative
reading, Na manides and Maimonides have no real disagreement: The
Kavod is identical to both the Active Intellect and the lowest sfira, that is
Shekhinah. However, he adds: we recite the words “Blessed be the Name
of the Glory of his Kingdom” in a whisper, since Kavod refers to the
separate intellects and it might be a theological problem.34
Perhaps the most amazing innovation of Rambi’s concerning the
Kabala is his ultra-rationalistic exposition of the mystical notion of
gilgul, that is, the transmigration of the soul. He explains the gilgul in
accordance with Averroes’ theory on the hylic soul. Here again he
claims, in the name of Maimonides, that the Active Intellect, which is
all-encompassing and one, enters the bodies of various human beings,
and post mortem returns to its source and is united a second time with
the Active Intellect, and so on, ad infinitum. This is the transmigration
of souls! This is gilgul! A thoroughly Averroized gilgul! Our individual
intellects connect and disconnect with the Active Intellect.35


Rambi is an admirer of Maimonides, and this admiration finds its

expression in the general theme of Ahabah ba-Ta{anugim. Through the
reading of the hidden language of the Guide of the Perplexed in a com-
prehensive, remarkable, although biased way, Rambi interprets Maimo-
nides in the light of radical philosophy; that is, Averroistic philosophy.
Consequently, he can use Maimonides as a bridge between old and
new, between tradition and philosophy, and this enables him to give a
broader review of the notion of Judaism. It is a Judaism that has room
for everyone—including Nahmanides and the Kabala—as long as they
have been given the right Maimonidean or Averroistic interpretation.

Nahmanides on Genesis 41:1.
173v. I believe that Rambi is correct in his assertion that Maimonides had more
than one meaning for the term Kavod. See Eisenmann (2004).
222 esti eisenmann


Davidson, H., Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes on Intellect: Their Cosmologies, Theories of the Active
Intellect, and Theories of Human Intellect, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Eisenmann, E., “Moses ben Yehuda and Scholasticism after Thomas Aquinas”
[Hebrew], The Golden Ages, Bar-Ilan University (forthcoming).
——, “The Created Glory and the Created Light in Maimonides’ Thought” [Hebrew],
Da{at, 55 (2004) pp. 41–58.
——, “Ahabah ba-Ta anugim: A 14th Century Encyclopedia of Science and Judaism”,
Ph.D. diss., [Hebrew], Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002.
——, “Ahavah ba-Ta anugim: A Fourteenth-Century Encyclopedia of Science and
Theology”, in Harvey (2000) pp. 415–429.
Harvey, S. (ed.), The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedias of Science and Philosophy, Dordrecht:
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.
Ivry, A., “The Soul of the Hebrew Encyclopedists”, in Harvey (2000) pp. 223–228.
Langermann, T., “Some Astrological Themes in the Thought of Abraham ibn Ezra”,
in Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris (eds), Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, Studies in the
Writing of a Twelfth Century Jewish Polymath, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,
Center for Jewish Studies, 1993, pp. 28–85.
Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, 2 vols. trans. S. Pines, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1963.
Nasr, S.H. and O. Leaman (eds), History of Islamic Philosophy, vol. 2, London: Rout-
ledge, 1996.
Shehadi, F., Metaphysics in Islamic Philosophy, Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1982.
Shiffman, Y., Rabbi Shem Tov ben Joseph Falaquera’s More Ha-More: A Philosophical and
Philological Analysis [Hebrew], Jerusalem, 2001.

Angel Sáenz-Badillos

Maimonides had a profound influence on every medieval Jewish intel-

lectual. For more than two hundred years after his death it was almost
impossible to disregard him or to overlook the great debates that he
had provoked in his time. In the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian
Peninsula, the Jewish writers of the fifteenth century felt morally obli-
gated to adopt an attitude in favor of or against Maimonides’ ideas.1
Here I will focus my attention on several Catalan authors of the first
and second half of the century, and I will try to trace different patterns
of attitudes of respect to the Rambam. In view of the many facets of
these debates, I will consider in particular the relations between faith
and reason, Torah and the philosophy and science of the Greeks,
and the role played by logic for these authors that not only lived at
the same epoch in the same kingdom, the Crown of Aragon, but had
also in common a certain familiarity with Latin, and with Christian
The name of Maimonides was not only associated with Aristotle, but
also with Averroes. In his letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon, ha-Rambam
recommended Averroes as one of the best commentators of Aristotle.
Many of Averroes’ commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus were trans-
lated from Arabic into Hebrew, and commented on by Jewish philoso-
phers during the fourteenth century. At the end of this century and the
beginning of the fifteenth, Averroes was more popular in Jewish circles
than Aristotle himself. At the same time, some of his most disputed
views invoked strong reactions against him among Jewish philosophers.
During the fifteenth century there were still many Jewish thinkers that
followed Averroes’ theories, but his authority as commentator on Aris-
totle was gradually weakened, in the field of logic in particular. In any

Cf. Harvey S. 2001: 127.
Cf. Baer 1939–40: 205; Pines 1967: 1 ff.; Manekin 1997: 351 f. It has been said
that “Scholastic influences upon fourteenth and fifteenth-century Jewish philosophy can
be seen in the increased attention paid to Scholastic logic . . .” (Rudavski 2003: 345).
Other very interesting thinkers of the time could of course be added to this study.
224 angel sáenz-badillos

case, Jewish thinkers of this period felt the need to search for alternative
approaches in the different branches of Philosophy.
The sociological conditions of the time had a strong influence on
the intellectual atmosphere. It is no wonder that the events of 1391
provoked the reaction of some influential Jews of the epoch against
the philosophical rationalism that was a part of the education of the
most cultivated Jewish families. They saw in it what had troubled the
minds of the communities and originated the conversion of many
of their educated and wealthy members. It should not be a surprise
that Aristotle, Averroes and Maimonides were harshly combatted at
that time by spiritual leaders of Judaism like Hasdai Crescas, or other
traditionalist thinkers.3
In Aragon and Catalonia, at the turn of the fourteenth century and
the first decade of the fifteenth, the authority of Hasdai Crescas, the
“philosophic critic”,4 was unquestionable. Hasdai, seeing the commotion
suffered by the Jewish communities, tried to establish a new foundation
of Jewish thought and halakah leaving aside the system of Maimonides
and, in general, Aristotelian philosophy.5 For Crescas, the cause of all
Maimonides’ errors, and those of his successors, was that Aristotle’s
science had replaced the traditional Jewish perspective. It seemed nec-
essary to overturn Maimonides’ philosophy using philosophical tools.6
Taking some elements from the new Physics of Occam, he tried to lay
the basis of a more traditional Judaism, with a new doctrine inspired
by some trends of Christian theology. There are researchers that tend
to reduce the influence of Crescas’ attitude in the intellectual life of the
Crown of Aragon, seeing it as too obscure and denying its success and
continuity.7 But the way of thinking that Crescas represented would be
shared by many Catalan-Jewish thinkers during the fifteenth century.

“Aristotelian philosophy was accused of having troubled the minds of the people,
causing the leaders of the communities, wealthy and generally acquainted with philo-
sophical ideas, to be among the first to convert instead of providing an example of
heroic conduct. This accusation, which has been taken up again by contemporary
scholars such as I. Baer, is presented in the work of Shem Tov”. (Sirat 1990: 346).
Harvey W. 1998: XI.
C. Sirat states that his “aim was to replace the work of Maimonides, from both the
philosophical and halakhic points of view . . . According to Crescas, the very foundation
of Maimonidean thought is false. The way that leads to God is not the knowledge of
the intelligibles but the fear and love of God . . .” (Sirat 1990: 358).
Lasker 1997: 403.
“His rejection of all the commonly accepted notions, and especially of Mai-
monides, aroused astonishment and indignation. Many scholars, who in fact admired
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 225

The conversions during these years, substantially increased during the

Tortosa Dispute of 1413–14, were for these thinkers a confirmation of
their criticism. The intellectual atmosphere of the epoch is characterized
by a harsh Jewish-Christian polemic that attained its climax when the
new king, Ferdinand of Antequera, summoned the Catalan Rabbis to
Tortosa to dispute with the converso Jeronimo de Santa Fe. The pressure
to attend the sermons of Vicente Ferrer in the synagogues was another
aspect of this strained situation.
How is it possible to reconcile this atmosphere of Jewish-Christian
controversy with the growing influence of scholasticism among several
Jewish thinkers? The explanation is rather complex. The influence of
Christian philosophical thought could be understood as a consequence
of the adaptation to the tendencies of the intellectual life of the North-
ern Kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula that replaced the influence of
Muslim philosophy in the Andalusian period. Christian scholasticism,
represented by Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas, was not less
based on Aristotelian principles than Maimonides’ or even Averroes’
system, but had already introduced the necessary changes for adapting
Greek philosophy to the Christian views on God and the creation of
the world. Some Jewish thinkers of this time found in the Christian
system a new synthesis of reason and faith that was easier to accept
for traditionalist Judaism than the perspectives of Maimonides himself.8
This could explain some anti-Maimonidean trends in Jewish thought
at the end of the Middle Ages.
What was the image of Maimonides among the Jewish thinkers of
the Crown of Aragon during the fifteenth century? There were many
different attitudes with respect to him in consonance with the basic
positions of these intellectuals, from a radical traditionalism to ratio-
nalism, with many intermediate grades and nuances. It is not easy to
classify each Jewish thinker from this perspective. Researchers disagree
on the presentation of the general panorama of Jewish thought during

Crescas, rallied to the support of the ‘Second Moses’ (who was whitewashed of all his
philosophical audacities), and the period saw more Maimonidean than partisans of
Crescas”. Sirat 1990: 370; cf. Pines 1967: 22 f.
Based on a marked distinction between “the path of investigation” (derekh ha-chaqi-
rah) and “the path of tradition and faith” (derekh ha-qabbalah ve-ha-emunah) that parallels
Aquinas’ distinction between philosophy and theology, according to Tirosh-Rothschild
1997: 506.
226 angel sáenz-badillos

the century,9 having different views on the more or less hostile attitude
toward philosophy in general and toward Maimonides in particular,10
and on the role played by the different thinkers.11
The minutes of the Tortosa Dispute show us that Maimonides’
authority was respected by both Jews and conversos. In spite of his
conversion, Jeronimo de Santa Fe was familiar with and employed
Maimonides’ works. He quoted him many times in defense of his own
points of view. He mentioned Maimonides’ opinion to support his own
new opinions on the nature and the coming of the Messiah.12 In very

For instance, C. Sirat sees a renaissance of Aristotelian philosophy towards the
middle of the century. (Sirat 1990: 381).
According to Ackerman, “The hostile attitude towards philosophy was…not the
dominant approach among the rabbinic leadership and the intellectual elite of fifteenth-
century Jewish Spain” (Ackerman 2003: 376). He includes among the adversaries of
rationalism, among others, Profyat Duran, and among those who represent a more
moderate position, Abraham Bibago, Abraham Shalom and Eli Habillo. Ackerman
gives a particular interpretation to the moderation of anti-rationalism in the fifteenth
century: “Such an anti-philosophical critique would hinder attempts to argue for the
rationality of Judaism and the irrationality of Christianity” (Ackerman 2003: 378).
Philosophical inquiry was permitted and the reading of philosophical texts was not
considered heretical. “These scholars rebuffed the approach of the antirationalists by
dismissing the charge that philosophy contributed to the crisis that engulfed Spanish
Jewry . . . Although Torah was viewed as a more reliable source of truth than philosophy,
the study of nature and metaphysical inquiry would inevitably lead to a deeper under-
standing of God and thereby contribute to human felicity. Many of these philosophers
concluded that rational investigation of religious principles was obligatory and even
part of the commandment to study the Torah” (Ackerman 2003: 378). “Hispano-
Jewish philosophers of the later period presented a different Maimonides . . . they were
attracted to Maimonides’ critique of the theory of eternity and his argument at the
end of the Guide that human perfection is not equivalent to intellectual perfection”.
(Ackerman 2003: 379) He mentions the influence of Christian Scholasticism and the
more favorable view of pre-Maimonidean thinkers among the differences from the
Jewish thinkers of the preceding centuries (Ackerman 2003: 380 f.).
For instance, Manekin includes Profyat Duran, Abraham Bibago and Abraham
Shalom among the “much more conservative” Jewish philosophers who flourished in
the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in the same group as, for instance, Hasdai
Crescas. And he gives an explanation of this attitude: “partly as a response to the
spiritual crisis in the Spanish Jewish community, which left them battling Christian
conversionary attempts on the one hand, and Jewish Averroist tendencies on the
other” (Manekin 1997: 352). Following Maimonides’ definition of emunah (Ar. i tiqād),
“the notion that is conceived in the soul when it has been averred of it that is in fact
just as it has been represented”, (Guide for the Perplexed I: 50) its cognitive interpretation
(as belief or conviction) is well-known to Jewish philosophers of the fifteenth century.
The main biblical and rabbinical meaning was “trust”, “reliance”, “acceptance”. In
the fifteenth century it is also “faith” (fides). Cf. Manekin 1997: 353.
At the beginning of the first session, he quoted the well-known passage of the
Guide (using its Hebrew name, “More”) on the “apples of gold in settings of silver”
(“mala aurea in lectis argenteis”, Pacios 1957, II: 20). He used other passages of this
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 227

decisive moments of the Dispute, Jeronimo appeared with the Talmud

and the books of Maimonides,13 as the most accepted authorities of
Judaism, trying to prove that both supported his own arguments about
the Messiah. And some of the most distinguished representatives of
the Jewish communities followed Maimonides in their defense of the
Jewish concept of the Messiah.14

Profyat Duran

We could expect in Duran an intellectual attitude very close to Hasdai

Crescas. Profyat probably lived in Hasdai’s home as preceptor of his son,
and they very likely shared many points of view. Their paths, however,
were very different. Profyat had to be baptized in conditions that are not
clear to us, but returned soon to the practice and defense of Judaism,
dedicating great energy to this apologetic work. At the same time, it
has been emphasized that he quoted some Christian authors, like Peter
Lombardus, Nicholas de Lyra, etc.15 He also knew some Latin and was
able to criticize the Vulgate translation of the Bible. He developed his
own ideas on the harmony of faith and reason. His criticism of the
Rambam was never as radical as that of Crescas.
Maimonides was always at the midpoint of Duran’s intellectual
system, as we can see in particular in his Commentary on the Guide for
the Perplexed, where he explains the text in a direct, literal way, without
defending all his opinions, but arguing that Maimonides never placed
philosophy above Torah.16 The influence of Aristotelian-Maimonidean
philosophy is very clear even in his linguistic ideas; he started his book on
Hebrew grammar in a completely new way, questioning the roots of the

book (Pacios 1957, II: 194, 254–6, on Guide for the Perplexed III: 32), in relation espe-
cially to the nature of the Messiah, the main topic of the Dispute, taken from Soferim
(Pacios 1957, II: 90, 274, 343, 361, 451, 469), Sefer Mada (Pacios 1957, II: 118, 157,
454, 486, 565), or the Letter to the Jews of Teman (Pacios 1957, II: 98, 343, 387); there
were also general allusions to the Rambam (Pacios 1957, II: 97, 110, 199, 381, 452,
456, 462, etc.).
Pacios 1957, II: 566, 573.
In the Dispute itself, some of the Jewish participants were using syllogisms as a
way of discussing the polemical topics. Cf. Pacios 1957, II: 213, etc.
Talmage 1981: 79 ff.; Lasker 1998: 181.
Sirat 1990: 354 f.
228 angel sáenz-badillos

language in general and searching for its causes.17 Profyat distinguished

the Rambam from his disciples or his interpreters, reinterpreting the
Master when he thought it necessary. He was not always enthusiastic
about Maimonides’ attitude, even if he defended his theories against
the worst attacks of his adversaries.
In his sarcastic, ironic language, he asserts in his Al tehi ka-avoteka
the need for reason as a complement to Torah in an attitude that is
not far away from Maimonides’:
Human Reason will seduce thee never more to dwell with her in dark
chambers, thou recognizest her as an enemy, pernicious like vipers. For
she was always an adversary of Faith and ever ready to wound Faith time
and again. He is a fool who said: ‘Reason and Torah are two lights in the
heaven of life.’ We have nothing to do with Reason, her syllogisms and
evidences, any more . . . Faith alone goes up to heaven. Those who deny
this go to hell . . . Faith is for thee a girdle round the loins, and Reason
with all her lies is unable to entice thee and divert thy paths.18
Be not like unto thy fathers, who were continuously engaged in sciences of
all kinds, in mathematics, metaphysics and logic, and tried to penetrate
to the foundations of truth. Not so thou! Far be it from thee to recognize
the first fundamental rule of reasoning in logic . . .19
In his Ma aśeh Efod he refers to Maimonides (“ha-Rav”) several times,20
but his name is included among Masters of very different intellectual
The second way [of studying the Torah]: the study has to be with help
of the books written by the famous masters of Israel . . .” Among them,
Rashi, Nahmanides, Yishaq al-Fasi . . . “and in the great book Mishneh Torah
by the glory of the masters, the greatest of all, ha-Rambam.21
A long passage of the Introduction to his Ma aśeh Efod 22 could be a
good example of Profyat’s attitude with respect to Maimonides. Duran
distinguishes here three groups of men from the point of view of
their attitude toward science and Torah: the first one is the group of

As Friedländer said in his Introduction to Ma aseh Efod, it meant in a sense the
application of logic to grammar. See Profyat Duran 1865: 13.
Kobler 1952, I: 277.
Kobler 1952, I: 278.
From the first page on: 1: Moreh; 3: Mishneh Torah on the laws of the sons of Noah;
5: Perush Abot; 7: Moreh (III: 51); 12; 15: letter to Yonatan from Luniel; 139: Millot ha-
higayon; 185, in a letter: Sefer ha-mada , etc.
Profyat Duran 1865: 19.
Profyat Duran 1865: 4 ff.
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 229

Talmudists, who think that the investigation of this book, the science
of the Talmud, is the only way that leads to ultimate human happiness.
For this group, the study of the natural sciences or the theology of the
Greeks is intrinsically bad; a part of them think that the study of the
Scripture is a waste of time, and it is better to concentrate exclusively
on the science of the Talmud.23 The second group
are the experts in the Torah that are dedicated to philosophy and follow
the traces of philosophers like Aristotle and are attracted to his work, but
at the same time they consider themselves attracted to the Torah of our
teacher Moses, and would like to link these two contraries. They think
that in fact it is like trying to acquire the ultimate happiness, since it is
the perfection of virtue for the soul, and this will be ready for its specific
perfection, the perfection of the logical, intellectual, natural and theologi-
cal sciences, in the way that the Greek sages exposed them in their books.
In their opinion, these are the “mysteries of the Torah”: the topics of the
natural sciences in the Torah are called ma aśeh bereshit, and those of the
theology, ma aśeh merkavah; these are the mysteries of the Torah of which
the sages warn that they should not be investigated except under certain
conditions, and the knowledge of all those things is the cause of the
eternal happiness of the soul when it passes from the potency to the act
in the acquisition of all these intellectual things . . .24
Profyat quotes Maimonides’ parable on the king in his palace,25 placing
the Talmudists around the palace without entering it, under those who
study Logic, who search for the door of the palace, those dedicated to
the natural sciences, who enter into the atrium of the palace, and those
who study the theological questions, who arrive at the chamber of the
king.26 It is clear that Profyat does not share this point of view. Some
of the members of this group, says Profyat, “are so stupid as to say
that some narratives of the Torah and some precepts are parables and
comparisons referred to the philosophical topics”. For some of them
the sciences of the Greeks are the most important element for attaining
supreme happiness, and Maimonides has become for them a hindrance,
an obstacle, since they interpret him the wrong way. Many sages of
Israel that have not deeply investigated the words of Maimonides make
him responsible for them, and Profyat is ready to show that they are

Profyat Duran 1865: 5.
Profyat Duran 1865: 6.
Guide for the Perplexed III: 51.
Profyat Duran 1865: 7.
230 angel sáenz-badillos

wrong.27 Duran interprets the words of Maimonides in a peculiar way,

and explains that he distinguishes three different kinds of Talmudists,
and that the best of them are able to enter into the chamber of the
king; these three groups are parallel to the three groups of scientists:
those who study logic, natural sciences and theology that are inferior
to the Talmudists in the grades of value.
And don’t think that what the Teacher said about the categories of
sages according to their knowledge of the natural sciences and theol-
ogy refers to what the sages from Greece like Aristotle and his followers
wrote on this in their books . . . but what we truly know about that, be it
in the books of the sages from Greece or in others. And if we refer to
clearly demonstrable topics that do not admit any doubt, as it happens
with the topics of logic and rhetoric, it is not something that should be
attributed to the sages from Greece, since all the truth that is in them
on these sciences was taken from the children of Israel in the time of
the exile . . . The wise Averroes testified in his book Hapalat ha-hapalah that
the intellectual sciences existed among the ancient Israelites. How can
anybody say that the Master referred with this to what the sages from
Greece wrote on it . . .?28
Maimonides, says Profyat, knew that the Philosophers made many
serious theological mistakes. He could not mean that all these scientific
mistakes contribute to human perfection and happiness. Ha-Rambam
removed from the thought of Aristotle everything that was against the
Torah and the truth!29
The third group is that of the Kabbalists, who attain a knowledge
that is much deeper than the one of the Philosophers, not through
research but thanks to tradition.30
It follows from all that we have said that the true service of God is to be
found in the study of the Torah and the books of the Prophets, and in
their constant study and examination.31
He establishes his priorities: first of all, the study of the Scripture, with
the Mishnah and the Talmud as possible help. The other sciences,
physics and metaphysics, are not excluded: they are allowed as an
introduction to the study of the Torah, as Maimonides says. He wrote

Profyat Duran 1865: 8.
Profyat Duran 1865: 8.
Profyat Duran 1865: 9.
Profyat Duran 1865: 9.
Profyat Duran 1865: 14.
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 231

his Moreh for building a wall that may protect the Torah against the
stones of the Philosophers.32

Shelomoh Bonafed

Born in today’s region of Lleida, in the Crown of Aragon, Bonafed was

the last good Hebrew poet during the first half of the fifteenth century
and a distinguished intellectual who had to deal with the problem of
the conversions. He wrote in Hebrew prose and verse to several conversos,
trying to keep the memory of their old faith alive. In his work we find
the echo of many problems of his time that have a clear relation to
Maimonides. Bonafed witnessed the tensions of his generation on the
old topic of faith and reason and attributed the confusion to a mistaken
interpretation of the Rambam:
I observed that faith was becoming weaker, and that many of the exiles
strayed without any hope, introducing foreign ideas to pull up the roots
of religion. The pious ones of this generation believed that study was
essential while practice was superfluous. Their stupidity made them believe
that the Torah is not necessary except for simple people educated in the
faith and the tradition, and that the crucial element is the study that
consists in the knowledge and understanding of God, in order to attain
human happiness; that this study includes the knowledge of the books
of Aristotle on physics and metaphysics. They find support for this in
the great tree, Maimonides, of blessed memory, who filled his books with
the understanding and knowledge of God through study, as he interpreted the
passage we-eda akha (Exod. 33:13);33 however, in his philosophical books
there are hardly any traces of the importance of the works that God
established to make us a house in his garden of Eden. Very likely, their
scarce intelligence to understand the opinions of the Master, of blessed
memory, is what has brought people to this conclusion, because it is not
correct to say that these were his ideas.34
Bonafed places the fulfillment of the miswot in a higher level than

Profyat Duran 1865: 15.
Guide for the Perplexed I: 54; III: 54.
Although other minor manuscripts have been preserved, the largest and most
important manuscript of Bonafed’s dîwân is Ms. 1984 (Mich. 155) from the Bodleian
Library, Oxford. All our quotations refer to this manuscript: see Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol.
232 angel sáenz-badillos

Based on the force of the proofs that there are in some biblical books, and
in sentences extracted from passages of the Torah, we must deduce that
the understanding of the precepts consists in fulfilling them: this is the real
knowledge and the true instruction. The quality of their practice is the
scale to ascend to the heights, the road and the path toward the palace
of God and his holy abode, as the Ephodi wrote. Since the precepts are
the chosen property of the elected people and if they accomplish them
they will be able to walk among the living ones for ever. It is similar to
the treatment by means of drugs and grasses that make effect thanks to
their inherent properties. And the study is the reflection on the Torah, a
meditation on it day and night, so that the one that reads it learns how
to accomplish the works and to fulfill the laws as it is due.
The pious one that serves his creator loving him, and carries out his
precepts with all his soul and with all his forces, even if he never stud-
ied physics nor metaphysics, and never investigated what there is in the
heights or what there is below, if he has as his only goal the love of his
creator and the fulfillment of his precepts, he will be successful in every
activity, and thanks to his justice, he will be very distinguished, even
king. He will be wiser than Aristotle and all his sages, since he will have
the eternal life while they will have eternal death. The one to whom the
Creator has endowed with knowledge and understanding will recognize
and experience that this, and only this, is the true knowledge of the
Torah. Most of the passages of the Torah agree with this for those that
truly understand them.35
Leaving aside his great respect for Maimonides, Bonafed was surely
not an enthusiastic Aristotelian or a rationalist.36 It seems remarkable,
however, that in the stiffened, unfriendly atmosphere of the first years
of the century, while Jewish communities were suffering the pressure
of the dominant religion, a Jewish intellectual like Bonafed could ener-
getically defend the scientific knowledge of his Christian neighbors.
Among his still unpublished letters and poems we find a long discussion
maintained in Hebrew with a young philosopher, a student of Yishaq
Arondi from Huesca, maintaining that the logic taught in his time by

Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 42–42v.
See, for instance, following verses of a poem dedicated to Shealtiel Gracian in
the “year of the conversions”, 1414, included in an unpublished letter (weradim hem,
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 42v–43v, 9 s.):
The heart of all sages is in Aristotle’s wisdom,
And true Law was by logic secluded and eliminated.
If the salvation of the souls were in their books,
The coming of the Lord to Sinai for letting hear his voice was meaningless.
In the prose section of the letter Bonafed criticizes the Aristotelians and praises Profyat
Duran and En Shealtiel Gracian.
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 233

Christian masters was superior to the logic from Arabic-Jewish tradi-

tion.37 We do not know the exact date of the debate, but it seems likely
that it took place shortly before 1413.

Bonafed recognizes the superiority of the Christian masters in the field

of sciences and philosophy, being aware of the fact that his praises could
be misinterpreted; at the same time, their theological vision deserves his
total repulse: “they have chosen paths of death,”38 “they have rejected
the word of God and his perfect Torah.”39 However, he is far from the
negative perspective of Hasdai Crescas or even of Profyat Duran.

As it was common at the time to answer the letter of a promising

young disciple of a well-known Jewish teacher, Yishaq Arondi, Bonafed
wrote him in a friendly way expressing his satisfaction for the interest
in logic shown by the young man. He commented to him that, after
having begun to learn this science with his own father, he had studied
it, in Latin, with a Christian teacher.40 There were probably no double
intentions in the words of Bonafed, but they included astonishing ele-
ments: that a Jewish intellectual would study with a Christian teacher
the foundations of Aristotelian philosophy was not something habitual
in the cultural life of early fifteenth-century Catalonia; that he had to
learn Latin for that, and that according to his own words he had paid
a good amount of money to the Christian teacher, could scandalize the
most traditional circles in the community. No wonder that the young
student of Arondi sent him a harsh, critical answer.
In the heading of the first letter, Bonafed underlines that “their way
[of the Christians] in logic is the right road, although they go finally
through paths of death, since their ways are not ours. Their methods
in logic are a clear, paved road, without any mess or hindrance, the
opposite of what happened with the version of Aristotle’s books made
by Ibn Rushd”. His opponent, the disciple of Arondi, prefers the logic

Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 87r–102r. In the best study on medieval Hebrew logic, the
dissertation of Rosenberg (1973), this dispute is mentioned, publishing a few lines of
the introduction with some imprecisions. See Sáenz-Badillos & Prats 2003: 15 ff.
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 87r.
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 90r.
On Logic in the education of young Jewish intellectuals in Provence and the
Crown of Aragon, see Manekin 1992: 8 f.
234 angel sáenz-badillos

that his teacher has taught him.41 The criticism of Averroes42 and his
interpretation of Aristotle seems to me highly significant. The pre-
dominant trend among Jewish medieval thinkers interested in logic,
like Maimonides, or Gersonides (the latter not mentioned by Bonafed),
followed without discussion the Arabic way. A critical attitude like
Bonafed’s was rather new in medieval Jewish thought.
Bonafed replied:
If you had seen the books of Albertus Magnus’,43 who was expert in the
seven disciplines, you would have been silent, and your soul would have
cried for our inferiority and limitation in this exile. See, they have created
something new on the earth, the science of Llull.44
He recognizes the superiority of the Christians in the sciences: “today
they have the sciences in property” (ibid.). This pre-eminence in the
field of logic and of other sciences is due in his opinion to three fun-
damental causes:
First, they have the translation of Boethius that is the one that really
responds to Aristotle’s intention, while we follow the translation of
Averroes that according to his words, went further on and changed the
meaning of Aristotle’s words, misinterpreting his intention in most of
the passages . . .45
Bonafed thinks that the changes introduced by Averroes in the first
figure of the syllogism are very clear. According to the Christians in
the first figure the subject of the first premise has to be the predicate
of the second one, and the syllogism begins with the more universal

Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 87r.
On Averroes (1126–1198), cf. Cruz Hernández 1986 and 1996: 503 ff. See also
Dumitriu 1977: 31 ff. His Basic work on this topic is the Kitâb al-darūrí fî-l-mantiq (“What
is necessary on logic”). About his influence on the Scholastic, Dumitriu says: “Arabic
influence on Scholastic logic is evident; without Arabic logic one could not explain a
series of concepts specific to Scholastics, such as the theory of universals, suppositions,
intentions, etc. Scholastic logic cannot be understood, in a historical way, without Arabic
logic . . .” (36). His Works were translated several times into Hebrew during the Middle
Ages. Cf. Wolfson 1961: 88 ff.
Albertus Magnus, (1193–1280) the “Doctor expertus”, made accessible Greek,
Arabic and Jewish thought to the Western intellectuals. On his treatises about logic
see Boehner 1950: 1. Cf. also Dumitriu 1977: 83 ff. On his translation into Hebrew
cf. Steinschneider 1893: 465 ff.
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 89r. On Ramon Llull (ca. 1232–1316) see Johnston 1987;
Abellán 1979: I, 274, and 1996: 86; Dumitriu 1977: 79 ff. On the translation of his
Ars brevis into Hebrew, cf. Steinschneider 1893: 475 f.
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 89r.
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 235

premise (all living beings are substance; all men are living beings; ergo
all men are substance); for the Arabs, and for Maimonides who follows
them, in the first figure the predicate of the first premise that is the
less universal or minor, is the subject of the second one (all men are
animals; all animals feel; ergo, all men feel). Second, the translators of
Averroes into Hebrew “changed and destroyed the meanings” of his
words. Finally, the Christian teachers, without economic problems, can
focus exclusively on the study of these disciplines. One more reason:
after the conversions the number of Jewish sages became very small,
and most of them were indifferent with respect to sciences. In ancient
times sciences were patrimony of the Jewish people, but the circum-
stances changed, and the Christians dominate the seven disciplines (the
trivium and the quadrivium). Bonafed concludes that in order to access
wisdom it is necessary to learn languages like Latin.46
His adversary complains that Shelomoh is defending the goyim, and
sustains that the Jewish sages are superior to the Christians in the
knowledge of this art, alleging two reasons: “the sharp intelligence of
our nation”, as a result of eating kosher food, and “the light of the
In his new and definitive letter,48 Bonafed answers in a harsh tone
with long explanations that show his familiarity with the topic. The
positive vision of the logic of the Christians is not a betrayal, since
he remains faithful to the Torah. He has written it “moved by the
concern for the topic, and for love of the truth”, recognizing that
the Jewish sages of his generation have moved away from logic while
the Christian masters continue under its banner.49 There is no reason
to distrust the fidelity of Christians to philosophy; Aristotle was pagan,
but Maimonides himself took the positive elements from him:
Aristotle, head of the Greek sages, prepared offerings for the queen of
heaven saddening our sacred Torah, and in most of the books that he
wrote did he not speak also against us? In concrete, the premises of the
numerous lies of his examples prevailed. In spite of all, our great teacher
of blessed memory did not renounce following his premises when his mind
was dealing with that science and he took out to the light the mysteries
and wrote books on the seven disciplines, maintaining himself true to

Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 89r.
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 92rv.
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 95v–102r.
Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 98r.
236 angel sáenz-badillos

his faith, and he never prayed to his gods. Who ascended through the
mysterious steps of the investigation of the Torah like Moses? But after
having eaten the delicious bread of its axioms and the fruit of its stud-
ies, he threw the shell of their worthless ideas and built the embankment
whose glory fills the whole earth, the glorious book of The Guide; under
its shade we live among the nations. He is like a fortified tower in the
city of our God that is his perfect Torah; he saved the city with his wis-
dom and took the lance of science from the hands of the Greeks, giving
them death with it, and squashing all the paladins of the investigation
of amid them.50
The clarity of ideas, the ability to distinguish the different postures,
the reasoned defense of that of the Christians, even dissenting from
almost all his coreligionists and above all from Maimonides, are proof
of Bonafed’s independence of mind and of his strong personality. We
find remarkable both his passionate defense of the true Aristotle as
transmitted by the version of Boethius, and his distancing from the
great majority of the Arab and Jewish logical tradition, especially from
Averroes and his disciples, including Maimonides.51 But in spite of his
clear dissent in the field of logic, Bonafed should in no way be included
among the anti-Maimonidean thinkers of the century.

Abraham Bibago

Bibago was another distinguished thinker of the Crown of Aragon dur-

ing the second half of the century. He lived in Huesca and in Saragosse,
knew Arabic and Latin and commented on Averroes’ Commentary
to Aristotle’s Analytica posteriora (1446) and Metaphysica. Although he is
sometimes classified as one of the representatives of the “conservative
reaction”,52 his ideological attitude was very temperate. Far from the
antirationalism that was predominant at the beginning of the century,
we could even describe him as a moderate follower of Maimonides

Ms. Bodl. 1984, fol. 98v.
The influence of scholastic logic on Jewish thinkers, both in Italy and in the Ibe-
rian Peninsula, is relatively late. See Steinschneider 1893: 470 ff. During the fourteenth
century, the most fruitful and creative in the history of Hebrew logic according to Sh.
Rosenberg, the great Jewish authors of Provence, Yosef ibn Kaspi, Gersonides (cf.
Manekin 1992; Rosenberg 1973: 75–93) or Mosheh Narboni, were Averroists.
See Daniel et al., eds. 2000: 270 ff.
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 237

open to scholastic influence. In his Derekh emunah he alludes to “some

Christian scholars”53 whose theology he studied in his youth.54
According to him, it is possible to attain the truth by two roads:
investigation (including Logic) and faith, emunah, that is, trust that
transcends rational perception.55 He does not diminish the value of
rational knowledge: the knowledge through true premises arranged
in a demonstrative syllogistic figure “is the final goal for which man
was created and that because of it man is likened to God and receives
spiritual existence”; the person who has this knowledge, “may be con-
sidered a perfect man”. But men can receive also a similar valuable
knowledge by tradition, acquiring it “from a genuine sage, whose truth
is indubitable”, and this is called “faith”.56 The intellect proceeds from
deficiency to perfection, and from potency to act through the way of
faith, and “faith differs from investigative knowledge”. Faith is “that
which is received from the best and the most perfect individuals”, and
it “is acquired through tradition and nothing else”; certainly it is not
“acquired via demonstrative investigation”.57 In that way, he conjugates
philosophy as rational inquiry (deprived of any possible exclusivism),
with a more receptive and traditional attitude, the acceptance of propo-
sitions on faith, which can be a much easier way for the illiterate Jew.
It has been observed that he may have in this view a clear coincidence
with Aquinas’ theories.58 Bibago does not directly attack the Aristotelian

“The most extensive employment of scholastic philosophy is evident in the works
of Abraham Bibago, who cited Dominican and Franciscan authors such as Alexander of
Hales, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Johannes Versoris, Francis of Mairone, Nicholas
Bonet, Geraldus Odonis and Petrus Aurioli”. (Tirosh-Rothschild 1997: 505).
Abraham Bibago 1978: 198. According to Lazaroff, “Scholastic influence, especially
Aquinas, is found in Abraham Bibago’s exhaustive treatment of emunah in his The Way
of Emunah. Unlike Arama, Bibago is not stridently anti-philosophical. On the contrary,
in order to make emunah epistemologically respectable, Bibago argues that knowledge
can be achieved either through rational inquiry (the way of investigation) or by accept-
ing propositions on faith (the way of emunah) . . . Moreover, knowledge based on faith
is superior to philosophical knowledge, in that it is accessible to all, not merely to the
wise” Lazaroff 1981: 4. See. Abraham Bibago 1978: 212–215; cf. Manekin 1997: 357.
“Judaism was the one true and rational faith that brought salvation to the believers
among the Jewish people” (Lazaroff 1981: 2).
See Orfali 1997: 197 ff. He introduced “the term ‘faith’ in a clearly Aristotelian
system”. (Sirat 1990: 386) Faith is “intellectual acquisition conceived according to the
truth on the basis of premises received from tradition”. (Sirat 1990: 388).
Derekh emunah II, 4, according to Daniel et al., eds. 2000: 270 f.
Derekh emunah II, 5, according to Daniel et al., eds. 2000: 271 ff.
Rudavsky 2003: 347.
238 angel sáenz-badillos

or Maimonidean position, but he puts it at the same level of a more

traditional approach to the truth.
As with Bonafed, Bibago maintained that emunah is acquired only
through performance of the laws. He tried to reconcile the approach
toward the laws found in Maimonides with the new emphasis on the
fulfillment of the law as a necessary condition for human felicity.59
He mentions Maimonides, “the master”, on nearly every other page
of his book and sometimes cites him several times on the same page; his
attitude is moderately rationalistic and empiricist, reinterpreting Mai-
monides’ radical positions in a more traditional manner.60 From the first
page of his book he begins quoting all of the opinions of Maimonides,
and he even offers a syllogism.61 He alludes to the disputes over the
work of the Rambam and his allegoric exegesis that he is witnessing
in his own time. Of course, Maimonides’ adversaries are also his own
adversaries.62 He presents himself as a disciple of Maimonides.63 In an
atmosphere of controversy that recalls the anti-Maimonidean quarrels
of the thirteenth century, he defends the study of the sciences in the
line of the Rambam:
. . . research, study and knowledge, whichever it is, do not separate man
from perfection, no harm nor guilt originates from knowledge, on the
contrary. If we see some men that are wicked and have studied these
sciences, the sciences are not the reason that they are evil, but their bad
constitution, because if they were not wise they would be even worse,
cruel and sinners. For that reason, the uncultivated ones are bad as
vipers, and there is no hate comparable to that of the ignoramuses for
the intellectuals that are just the opposite in everything . . . Science cannot
damage in any way, it only provides benefits.64

Manekin 1997: 358.
Cf. Lazaroff 1981: 3. Lazaroff sees in Bibago’s work “a certain rationalism and
empiricism resulting from the influence of Maimonides and ibn Rushd, a traditional
and somewhat antimetaphysical supernaturalism that reasserted itself in late scholastic
Augustinianism and nominalism, and a particularism and nationalism characteristic of
Halevi”. “Bibago offers an orthodox interpretation of Maimonides’ often ambiguous phi-
losophy. Like his contemporary Abraham Shalom, he vigorously defends Maimonides,
in his case, especially against Gersonides . . . Bibago often interprets Maimonides in
terms of Ibn Rushd and tries to make their doctrines consistent . . . On two basic issues
that separated Maimonides and Aristotelism from Crescas, Bibago clearly sided with
Maimonides (intellectual relation with God and free will)” (1981: 48).
Abraham Bibago 1978: 47.
Abraham Bibago 1978: 180.
Abraham Bibago 1978: 181.
Abraham Bibago 1978: 188 f.
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 239

The Rabbis never intended to prohibit the study of the sciences: “to
study the sciences is allowed and commanded to every man by the fact
that he is a man, and the person that is not wise is like a body without
soul.”65 Bibago discusses the opposing views on this topic (prohibition
or necessity of the study of the sciences) with the help of syllogisms,
and he finally concludes that man as an intelligent being has to study
the sciences, and as a believer he has to study the Torah and acquire
emunah.66 One of the strongest arguments in favor of this conclusion is
the authority of Maimonides, who recommended the study of sciences
as a preparation for the study of the Torah.67
For him philosophy is not to be included in the “science of the
Greeks”: “The science that is called ‘Greek’ is something peculiar
to the Greek nation, not to other peoples”. Sciences in general are
human, not “Greek”. The Greek science that has been excluded in
Jewish studies is of two types: that of its religions and festivals, and
the “science of rhetoric.”68

Abraham Shalom

Abraham Shalom could be identical to a physician that lived in Cervera,

Catalonia, during the second half of the fifteenth century, and translated
some scholastic books from Latin into Hebrew. In his Neweh Shalom,
“Abode of Peace”, a homiletic, apologetical and philosophical work, he
defended the value of the Talmud against Greek philosophy, adopting
many ideas of Maimonides and defending him against Gersonides from
one side and Crescas from the other. In some theological questions he
was not able to reconcile Maimonides with orthodox religious ideas,
but he never said that Maimonides was wrong.69
Abraham had a vision of Jewish religion that was not averse to
nor disapproved Maimonides’ rationalism. He did not agree with

Abraham Bibago 1978: 189.
Abraham Bibago 1978: 189 f.
Abraham Bibago 1978: 195. He also quotes the testimony of Eusebius maintaining
that the science that can be found in the Greek writers has its origins in Israel, and
that Aristotle himself was a Jew.
Abraham Bibago 1978: 198–202.
“Profoundly convinced of the doctrines of the Jewish religion on the one hand and
the truth of the Maimonidean positions on the other, he endeavored to communicate
his certitudes in the philosophical style of the period”. (Sirat 1990: 393).
240 angel sáenz-badillos

Gersonides or with Crescas when they criticized Maimonides, from

different perspectives, as subordinating faith to philosophy.70 As Prof.
Herbert Davidson said in the title of his well-known book, it is “A fif-
teenth-Century Exposition and Defense of Maimonides”, a proof “of
the striking dominance which Maimonides continued to exercise among
the Jews up to the end of the Middle Ages”.71 But it was clear for him
that the ways of the Torah were superior to the ways of philosophical
research for knowing the truth.
Shalom tried to show the wisdom hidden in the dicta of the rabbis.
Quoting Maimonides, he states that metaphorical terms are frequently
employed both in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. The intellect
and the Torah are two separate ways to attain the knowledge of God,
and both of them have to be pursued. The higher way of revelation
teaches both those truths that can be demonstrated by the intellect and
others that cannot be so demonstrated. There are even some truths
that are denied by the philosophers and known by revelation. In this
sense, the same as for Bibago or the Christian scholastic theologians,
faith is clearly placed over reason.
It is Maimonides, however, who deserves Shalom’s highest respect.
He is the main source of his philosophical ideas. All of the words of
Maimonides, he writes, are “pure, free of the dross of confusion”.
Sometimes he even forces the interpretation of certain statements of
Maimonides in order to harmonize them with his own views.72 Beside
that, for him, the same as for other thinkers of the fifteenth century,
the Greek sages learned everything from “our sages”.73
Summing up, among the common characteristics of the thought of
these late Jewish thinkers are a deep respect for Maimonides, a special
sensibility in relation to the debate that he aroused several centuries
before, the search for a personal answer to some decisive questions posed
by the Rambam, and the attempt to attain a new synthesis of philosophy
and theology not always coincident with that of Maimonides, without
ignoring what Christian theologians had taught about these problems.
Moshe ben Maimon was more at the starting point of the new ideo-

See Orfali 1997: 201.
Davidson 1964: 1 ff.
Davidson 1964: 5 ff.
See Kuzari II: 66. Shalom speaks of the heqqesh toriyi, the “Torah syllogism”
(Davidson 1964: 101). He alludes to the Rambam (ha-Rab) on at least five occasions
(1v, 3v (3), 4, 5 (against Gersonides), 8 (creation), etc.)
late medieval jewish writers on maimonides 241

logical systems than at the summit of the different developments. The

fact that in such difficult times Christian sources were not excluded, and
that in many cases their influence was very clear, has been explained in
different ways. For more traditional scholars, it was a way of preparing
themselves for the controversies with Christian adversaries. In recent
years some scholars have proposed another justification: the Christian
philosophers had sought for an effective concordance between faith and
reason that could not be found in the Greek-Arabic tradition, bound to
ancient paganism.74 A third explanation could be added: the attitude
of these Jewish intellectuals was above all pragmatic, and they sought
for the best masters of their time. In any case, Maimonides could in no
way be forgotten; he was present in the mind of every Jewish thinker
of this late period, even if he had to be reinterpreted, modified or
completed on many occasions. The philosophers of this epoch admired
him, distinguished him from his disciples, and avoided the mistakes that
many who were ignorant attributed to him.


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—— (1996) Historia del pensamiento en el mundo islámico. 2. El pensamiento de al-Ándalus
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Menachem Kellner

1. Introduction

Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) expressed a vision of Judaism as a

remarkably naturalist religion of radical responsibility; a religion in
which concrete behavior serves the needs of abstract thought; and a
religion in which that abstract thought is to be understood as the deep-
est layer of the Torah and is a system which, at least in Maimonides’
day, could be most clearly and accurately expressed in the vocabulary
of the Neoplatonized Aristotelianism which Maimonides accepted
as one of the highest expressions of the human spirit. This Judaism
was at one and the same time deeply elitist and profoundly universal-
ist. Maimonides was brought to crystallize and express this vision of
Judaism because the Jewish world in his day was, in his view, debased
and paganized.
Moreover, Maimonides hated clutter. He was not only a consum-
mate systematizer and organizer (as we see in the Mishneh Torah), he
also disdained what might be called the metaphysical clutter of ancient
Jewish mysticism, which posited a pleroma full of entities occupying the
space, as it were, between God and humanity. One of his main goals
was to use an Ockhamist razor to shave that space clean.
In other words, Maimonides was a religious reformer. Was he a suc-
cessful reformer? On balance, the answer must be: No. The Maimonides
whose impact on Judaism is apparently so vast that the octocentennial
of his death in 1204 brought forth a flood of symposia, journals and
collected volumes (including this one), is a sanitized Maimonides, a
Maimonides forced to fit accepted (and hence acceptable) patterns of

It is well-worth noting that while the academic world “celebrated” the anniversary
in all the ways just noted, so far as I could tell the “Lithuanian yeshiva world” allowed
the anniversary to pass in almost total silence. I suspect that is actually a sign of health
in a world in which Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah is studied intensively every day; arbitrary
anniversaries make very little sense in such a context. But in the Hasidic world, with
246 menachem kellner

There are at least two areas in which the Maimonidean reform suc-
ceeded. But even his successes are hardly full-fledged. Maimonides con-
vinced Jews that God is radically incorporeal. I do not believe that there
is a literate Jew alive today who does not at least pay lip-service to that
claim. But even while affirming it in principle, many deny it in practice.
For Maimonides, divine incorporeality means absolute, radical simplicity.
A composite God is not incorporeal. Jews who affirm the kabbalistic
doctrine of sefirot as an account, even poetic, of processes internal to
divinity are, I have no doubt Maimonides would hold, sectarians who
have no share in the world to come, no matter how loudly they sing
the third stanza of the synagogue hymn Yigdal, or with what enthusiasm
they declaim the third verse of the poem Ani Maxamin. Similarly, Jews
who attribute divinity, no matter how attenuated, to beings other than
God (such as deceased wonder-working rabbis from Brooklyn), or who
seek to propitiate through charms and talismans beings other than God
(such as the evil eye), all fail to pass Maimonidean muster as believers
in the unity and incorporeality of God.
Maimonides also convinced Jews that the Torah has a theology which
may be summarized in thirteen normative, authoritative, obligatory
dogmas. But for every hundred Jews who can tell you that Judaism has
thirteen principles of faith, probably fewer than a dozen can tell you
what they are, and of that dozen, vanishingly few have ever actually
read them in the way in which Maimonides set them down.2 Of that
tiny minority, how many have actually worked through them in the
way in which Maimonides thought proper? Maimonides demanded
that Jews understand the arguments which made acceptance of the
principles a rational necessity. Far from establishing Judaism on a firm
philosophical basis, his principles were pried from their theoretical
framework and turned into a literary trope. Indeed, given the dramatic
changes in natural science since Maimonides’ day, and the concomitant

its plethora of hilulilot and celebratory yahrzeit observances, the silence surrounding
Maimonides’ yahrzeit may be indicative of an attitude of reserve concerning him. On
this latter, see Allan Nadler, “The ‘Rambam Revival’ in Early Modern Jewish Thought:
Maskilim, Mitnagdim, and Hasidim on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed”, in B. Kraut
(ed.), Moses Maimonides: Communal Impact, Historic Legacy (Queens, NY: Queens College
Center for Jewish Studies, 2005): 36–61.
Let alone in the language, Arabic, in which they were written. Even those who pay
lip-service to the principles have felt free through the generations to reject or modify
them. See Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles
Reappraised (Oxford: Littman Library of Civilization, 2004).
maimonides’ disputed legacy 247

changes in philosophy, I am tempted to say that were Maimonides to

walk among us today he would condemn as mentally infirm anyone
who now accepted (at least the first five of ) his principles in the way in
which he laid them down in the twelfth century.3 But, as was pointed
out to me by an earlier reader of this essay, how meaningful or rigorous
is it to speak about what would happen if ‘Maimonides were to walk
among us?’ Would he be Maimonides at all without his Aristotelian
framework? So, to be more honest, let me just say that I am convinced
that one today cannot accept the first five principles as they were laid
down by Maimonides.
So much for the Great Eagle’s successes.4 What of his failures? A full
accounting of the ways in which Maimonides tried to reform Judaism
would demand a whole book; indeed, I have given an account of part
of his proposed reform in my Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.5
In that book I argued that despite his failure to convince Jews to accept
his legacy in his terms, he may still be characterized as one of the most
influential Jews who ever lived. But, despite that, not long after his death
a composition appeared which, for contrary impact and influence in
the realms of thought and practice, can be seen as a worthy competi-
tor. I refer, of course, to the Sefer ha-Zohar. The world of the Zohar is
so unlike that of Maimonides that at times it appears impossible that
it and Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed should both be accepted as
authoritative in the same religious tradition. It is to one aspect of the
complex relationship between the worlds of the Zohar and of the Guide
that I devoted my book. That aspect was well-summarized by the late

Compare Herbert A. Davidson’s comment that, given the changes in astronomy
and philosophy since Copernicus, Newton, Hume, and Kant, “Celestial motion no
longer lends itself to a proof of the existence of an incorporeal being who maintains
the heavens in motion, and no philosophic school of standing steps forward any longer
with an alternative apodictic demonstration of the existence of God. If Maimonides
were alive today, he would have to concede that he too was unable to fulfill the first
two positive commandments of the divine Law in the manner he insisted on.” See
p. 145 in Davidson, “The First Two Positive Commandments in Maimonides’ List of the
613 Believed to Have Been Given to Moses at Sinai,” in Creation and Re-Creation in Jewish
Thought: Festschrift in Honor of Joseph Dan on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, edited
by Rachel Elior and Peter Schaefer (Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005): 113–145.
Warren Zev Harvey would argue that Maimonides enjoyed other successes. See his
“The Return of Maimonideanism,” Journal of Jewish Social Studies 24 (1980): 249–268.
Harvey discusses the influence of Maimonides on thinkers like Leon Roth (1896–1963)
and Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994).
London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006. Henceforth: Confrontation.
248 menachem kellner

Isadore Twersky, who, à propos Maimonides’ unusual views concerning

the nature of the Hebrew language, noted that “Maimonides’ desacral-
ization of language should be seen as an expression of his consistent
opposition to hypostasized entities endowed with intrinsic sanctity.”6
Twersky is surely correct. Among the entities which Maimonides
seeks to “de-hypostasize” are the property of holiness, the Hebrew
language, the land of Israel, the people of Israel, the divine glory
(kavod), the divine presence (shekhinah), angels, and sin. Consistent with
this approach, he seeks to present distinctions fundamental to Judaism,
such as holy/profane, ritually pure/ritually impure, permissible/imper-
missible, and, especially, Jew/Gentile as institutional, sociological, and
historical issues, and not as ontological matters. These distinctions, I
showed Maimonides to hold, do not reflect the presence or absence
of actual properties in the entities under discussion, but, rather, the
ways in which the Torah commands Jews to behave with respect to
these entities.
In each of these issues Maimonides implicitly (and sometimes explic-
itly) criticizes important elements of the regnant Jewish culture of
his day; and, in each of those issues Maimonides failed in getting his
critique adopted, even if only by a small rabbinic elite. If, as I claim,
Maimonides’ overall aim in his writings was not only the harmoniza-
tion of philosophy and Torah, as is often thought to be the case, but,
also, the use of philosophy to purify what he held to be a corrupted
and paganized Torah, then he must be adjudged one of great failures
in Jewish history.
Attending to the historiography of Moshe Idel will make this
point clearer. Idel has argued persuasively that Kabbalah crystallized
out of pre-existing materials in response to the challenge posed by
Maimonides.7 He has also noted that Maimonides’ views themselves
crystallized in response to what I call “proto-Kabbalistic” elements
in Judaism. The Maimonides who emerges from this interpretation
is thus something of a tragic figure: seeking to purify Judaism from
“proto-Kabbalah”. What he actually succeeded in doing was to force

Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980),
p. 324n.
See Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988),
p. 253. As Idel notes, H. Graetz was the first scholar to express this idea. For further
discussion of it, see Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1987), p. 7.
maimonides’ disputed legacy 249

these currents of thought from the subterranean depths in which they

had hitherto flowed up to the bright light of day. In that light they
flourished, grew, and ultimately became dominant. Kabbalah has long
since become the mainstream of Judaism, relegating Maimonideanism
to the status of a largely ignored backwater.
Maimonides was a religious reformer, but he was also a proud and
loyal Jew. He realized that, were he to formulate his vision of Judaism
as a series of theses and nail them to the synagogue door in Old Cairo,
he would be ignored or would foment schism, neither of which would
accomplish his ends.8 He therefore decided to express his vision of
Judaism in a way that would not harm those incapable of accepting
it, while helping those who were capable.9 With very few exceptions,
Maimonides does not openly attack Jewish positions which he rejects.
He ignores the opposition wherever he can, stating, or at least, hinting
at the truth as he sees it. This may have been a matter of personality
or a matter of policy, or both, but it certainly seems to be a consistent
mode of operation throughout his writings.

Maimonides consistently sought to avoid controversies which might divide the
Jewish people or threaten the stability of Jewish society. On this, see: Yaxakov Blid-
stein, Ha-tefillah be-mishnato he-hilkhatit shel ha-rambam ( Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1994),
pp. 138–143; Blidstein, Samkhut u-meri be-halakhat ha-rambam (Tel Aviv: Ha-kibbutz
ha-mexuhad, 2002), pp. 149–150. Razon Arussi cites many examples of Maimonides’
attempts to avoid controversy in his “Unity and Separatism in the Teaching of Mai-
monides,” Techumin 8 (1987): 462–487 (Hebrew).
A good example of this approach is Maimonides’ famous statement in the intro-
duction to his “Eight Chapters”:
Know that the things about which we shall speak in these chapters and in what
will come in the commentary are not matters invented on my own nor explana-
tions I have originated. Indeed, they are matters gathered from the discourse of
the Sages in the Midrash, the Talmud, and other compositions of theirs, as well
as from the discourse of both the ancient and modern philosophers and from
the compositions of many men. Hear the truth from whoever says it. Sometimes
I have taken a complete passage from the text of a famous book. Now there is
nothing wrong with that, for I do not attribute to myself what someone who
preceded me said. We hereby acknowledge this and shall not indicate that “so
and so said” and “so and so said,” since that would be useless prolixity. Moreover,
the name of such an individual might make the passage offensive to someone without experience
and make him think it has an evil inner meaning of which he is not aware. Consequently, I
saw fit to omit the author’s name, since my goal is to be useful to the reader. We shall explain
to him the hidden meanings in this tractate.
I cite the text from the Introduction to “Eight Chapters” as it is translated in R. Weiss
and C. Butterworth (eds.), Ethical Writings of Maimonides (New York: Dover, 1983), p. 60
(emphasis added).
250 menachem kellner

Maimonides did not wait till he wrote the Guide of the Perplexed in order
to express his vision of Judaism. All of his writings express this vision
to one extent or another. In writings addressed to ordinary, everyday
Jews and their rabbis he subtly refashions the Judaism of his readers
into one closer to the austere and demanding faith which he believed
was revealed at Sinai.
In my new book I analyze two opposed philosophies of Halakhah,
that of Halevi and his successors, which tends towards the expansion
of rabbinic authority into political spheres, and that of Maimonides,
which tends to limit the authority of rabbis to what may be called
technical matters of Halakhah. The view which I found in Halevi leads
(indirectly) to claims that rabbis have authority in all questions and
that their ex cathedra pronouncements, which, it is claimed, reflect the
position of the Torah (daxat Torah) must be accepted without demur. I
argued that Maimonides not only never heard of this notion, but that
he would certainly have rejected it had he known of it.10
Issues of sanctity and of ritual purity and impurity obviously relate
to Halakhah, but also, at least in the eyes of many contemporary Jews,
to the nature of the universe itself. Much of the discourse in contem-
porary Orthodoxy (both Zionist and haredi) about the Land of Israel
relates to its ontological status as a land significantly unlike all other
lands. I literally have no idea how Maimonides would react to the State
of Israel, and to questions concerning territorial compromise. But,
whatever position he might take, he would not phrase the question in
terms of the ontological status of the Land of Israel.
With respect to the issue of ritual purity and impurity, one example
taken from contemporary discourse will show how far Maimonides is
from being representative today. A considerable amount of (admittedly
anecdotal) evidence indicates that in very many cases newly observant
Jews in the haredi world marry other newly observant Jews. One of
the reasons for this is that such people were born to non-observant
parents. That means that at the moment of conception their mothers
were tainted by menstrual impurity, which means that the offspring are
in some sense also tainted. This taint in no way impinges upon their
character, their chances for a share in the world to come, or the esteem

The contemporary implications of this debate between these opposed philosophies
of halakhah are examined in my “Rabbis in Politics: A Study in Medieval and Modern
Jewish Political Theory,” State and Society 3 (2003): 673–698 (Hebrew).
maimonides’ disputed legacy 251

in which they are held. But it is a taint nonetheless, a defect in yihus, or

lineage.11 This whole approach is dramatically anti-Maimonidean.12
Matters of holiness and ritual purity relate to the kind of world in
which Maimonides wants us to live. It is a “disenchanted” world, a
world which can be understood using the tools of rational inquiry and,
so to speak, applied. It is a world which demands maturity of those
who live in it, since nothing, not their humanity, not their Jewishness,
is presented to them on a silver platter; everything must be earned. It
is a world in which Jews are called upon to fulfill the commandments,
not because failure to do so is metaphysically harmful, but because
fulfilling them is the right thing to do. By making demands, imposing
challenges, Maimonidean Judaism empowers Jews.13 Their fate is in
their own hands, not in the hands of semi-divine intermediaries, nor
in the hands of rabbinic elites.
The world favored by Maimonides’ opponents, on the other hand,
is an “enchanted” world. Many of Maimonides’ opponents, in his day
and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear
the harm of demons and the evil eye. But it is not in that sense that
I maintain that they live in an enchanted world. Theirs is not a world
which can be explained in terms of the unvarying workings of divinely
ordained nature; it is not a world which can be rationally understood.
It is a world in which the notion of miracle loses all meaning, since
everything that happens is a miracle. In such a world instructions from
God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a
religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature. This
is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out
of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of rabbis.
But, and this must be admitted, while a disenchanted world may
be empowering, it is also frightening; in such a world, God can be
approached, but rarely approaches. It is a world fit for a philosopher
like Maimonides, but hard on a frightened person, who does not want

For a discussion of some of the background to this, see Daniel J. Lasker, “Kab-
balah, Halakhah, and Modern Medicine: The Case of Artificial Insemination,” Modern
Judaism 8 (1988): 1–14. On the sociology of this phenomenon, see Kimmy Caplan,
“Israeli Haredi Society and the Repentance Phenomenon,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 8
(2002): 369–398, esp. pp. 394–396.
I do not mean to imply that Maimonides was uninterested in questions of lineage
(see, e.g., “Laws of Kings,” XII.3), but that he did not see violations of the laws of
menstrual impurity as something which could impart an “ontological taint.”
My thanks to Jolene S. Kellner for drawing this point to my attention.
252 menachem kellner

the challenge of living by her wits (literally), but the comfort of God’s
love and the instructions of God’s agents. We may admire those who
think for themselves, but many are just as happy to have their thinking
done for them. An enchanted world has many attractions! This indeed
may be one of the reasons why Maimonides’ attempted reforms aroused
so much opposition.
One does not need the nonsense associated with the singer Madonna
to know that many contemporary Jews treat the Hebrew language as
mystically significant and ontologically distinct from other languages.
Here, too, much of the world of contemporary Judaism is far from
The hypostasization of kavod and shekhinah in Kabbalah, and the fact
that all contemporary Orthodoxy, hasidic and mitnagdic, is infused
with kabbalistic motifs makes it clear beyond the need of demonstra-
tion that Maimonides’ “de-hypostasization” of these notions has few
echoes in contemporary Judaism. In this case, as in the case of Hebrew,
there seems to be no substantial distinction between Orthodoxy on
the one hand, and Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and New
Age Judaism on the other; all have enthusiastically adopted kabbalistic
A subject to which I have devoted considerable attention over the
years is the nature of Maimonides’ universalism.15 Here Maimonides is
deeply at variance with the spirit of (to my mind) much too much of
contemporary Orthodoxy. The easy acceptance of the idea that Jews
as such are in some important way (spiritually and morally) superior to
non-Jews as such permeates much of Orthodox discourse. Prudential
considerations often lead to attempts to downplay or hide these notions,

Maimonides, in the felicitous phrase of Anthony Julius, also sought to “depopulate”
the heavens. While angels do not appear to play much of a role in religious life these
days, whether in Judaism, or in Christianity and Islam, there can be little doubt that
Maimonides’ denial of the existence of angels as traditionally construed would strike
few responsive chords in the hearts of many contemporary Jews. See Julius, Idolizing
Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm and Jewish Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), p. 33.
My most recent study is “Steven Schwarzschild, Moses Maimonides, and ‘Jew-
ish Non-Jews’,” in Görge K. Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse (eds.), Moses Maimonides
(1138–1204): His Religious, Scientifical, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different
Cultural Contexts (Würzburg: Ergon, 2004): 587–606. This essay was revised as ch. 7
in Confrontation. Many of my studies in Maimonidean universalism are about to be
reprinted in my Science in the Bet Midrash: Studies in Maimonides (New York: Academic
Studies Press, 2010).
maimonides’ disputed legacy 253

but no honest observer can deny their prevalence. Maimonides’ failure

here is particularly pronounced.
These issues, analyzed in Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, all
deal with what might be called Maimonides’ discomfort with metaphysi-
cal clutter; his attempts to cleanse Judaism of that clutter cannot be
called a success (to put the matter mildly). Before his legacy could be
accepted, it had to be made kosher, so to speak. His concrete legacy
to the history of Judaism is thus far from the legacy he actually sought
to bequeath to his people.
But issues arising out of Maimonides’ Ockhamist temper are not the
only ways in which his legacy was misunderstood or misrepresented. In
what follows I shall discuss two other aspects of Maimonides’ legacy,
not connected to his “proto-ockhamism,” which had to be “translated
and improved” before they could be accepted as part of normative
Jewish teaching. We shall see two inter-related examples of how con-
temporary students of Maimonides’ rabbinic writings ignore or render
“acceptable” the message he sought to impart.

2. Curricular Reform and the Nature of Torah

Anyone familiar with Jewish Orthodoxy today can attest to the fact
that the Hirschian ideal of Torah study combined with a “secular”
education is in retreat on many fronts. In what follows I will show
that Maimonides’ position is much more radical than any put forward
in modernity. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that
it has few, if any adherents today. Indeed, it is rarely recognized for
what it is.16
Maimonides concludes the introduction to his revolutionary code,
Mishneh Torah, with the following “scandalous” peroration:
In our times, severe troubles prevail and all are in distress; the wisdom
of our Torah scholars has disappeared, and the understanding of our
discerning men is hidden. Thus, the commentaries, the settled laws,
and the responses to questions that the Geonim wrote, which had once
seemed clear, have in our times become hard to understand, so that only
a few properly understand them. And one hardly needs to mention the
Talmud itself, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, the

An earlier version of this section of the paper appeared in Hebrew as “Mishneh
Torah—Maduxa,” Mesorah le-Yosef 4 (2005): 316–329.
254 menachem kellner

Sifra, the Sifri, and the Tosefta, which all require a broad mind, a wise
soul, and considerable study, before one can correctly know from them
what is forbidden or permitted and the other rules of the Torah. For this
reason, I, Moshe son of Maimon the Sefardi, became stirred to action
and, relying on the help of the Rock blessed be He, intently studied all
these books, for I saw fit to write what can be determined from all of
these works in regard to what is forbidden and permitted, and unclean
and clean, and the other rules of the Torah: Everything in clear language
and terse style, so that the whole Oral Torah would become thoroughly
known to all; without bringing problems and solutions or differences of
view, one saying such and such and another saying something else; but
rather clear, convincing, and correct statements, in accordance with the
legal rules drawn from all of these works and commentaries that have
appeared from the time of Moshe to the present.17 This is so that all
the rules should be accessible to great and small in the rules of each
and every commandment and the rules of the legislations of the Torah
scholars and prophets: in short, so that a person should need no other
work in the World in the rules of any of the laws of Israel; but that this
work might collect the entire Oral Torah, including the positive legisla-
tions, the customs, and the negative legislations enacted from the time
of Moses Our Teacher until the writing of the Talmud, as the Geonim
interpreted it for us in all of the works they wrote after the Talmud.
Thus, I have called this work the [Complete] Restatement of the [Oral] Torah
(Mishneh Torah), for a person reads the Written Torah first and then reads
this work, and knows from it the entire Oral Torah, without needing to
read any other book between them.18
Maimonides says here that in order to know Halakhah, one needs to
study the written Torah and the Mishneh Torah and nothing else. Could
he have possibly meant that? Whether or not that was Maimonides’
meaning will become clear as we proceed. It is clear, however, that at
least some of his contemporaries understood him in that fashion.
We learn this from a letter sent by Maimonides to Pinhas ha-Cohen,
a rabbinic judge in Alexandria. This letter is an answer by Maimonides
to a variety of issues raised by his correspondent. It is obvious from the
(somewhat exasperated) reply of Maimonides that Pinhas had implied
that Maimonides sought to replace the Talmud with the Mishneh Torah.
Here is what Maimonides wrote:

Ephraim Urbach notes the irony here; the Mishneh Torah attracted the attention
of thousands of commentators and expositors, “bringing problems and solutions or
differences of view, one saying such and such and another saying something else.” See
Urbach, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivry ( Jerusalem: Magnes, 1973), vol. 3, p. 1022.
I cite the translation of Machon Mamre (http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/
e0000.htm) with minor emendations.
maimonides’ disputed legacy 255

For all this it is proper to remonstrate with you, and to make known to
you that I understood what you intended, even though you did not make
it explicit, but only hinted. Know therefore that I have never said, Heaven
forbid, “Do not preoccupy yourself with the study of the Gemara, of the
Halakhot of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, or of any other text.” In point of fact,
God Himself is my witness that for the past year and a half [the students
who have come to me] have not studied my own composition with me;
quite the contrary . . . Have I ever commanded or has it ever occurred
to me to burn all the books composed before my time because of my
regard for my own work? In the introduction to my own composition, I
explicitly wrote that my sole purpose in composing it was to alleviate the
burden of those students who because of their impatience of spirit were
not able to descend to the depths of the Talmud, and therefore could
not understand from it the way of determining what is permissible and
what is forbidden.19
However we choose to read this passage (the temptation to say
“Methinks the rabbi doth protest too much” is nearly overpowering) it
is clear that at least some of Maimonides’ contemporaries took him to
mean precisely what he wrote, to wit, that in order to decide halakhic
issues one needed to consult only two books, and two books only, the
Written Torah and the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides, like Desdemona,
may be protesting too much, but it is clear that he is protesting against
an interpretation of his project which had obviously struck root, even
in his own Egypt.20
One of the few great Talmudists in Jewish history who can be called
a Maimonidean in the fullest sense of the term was R. Menahem
ben Solomon of the House of Meir, known as the Meiri (Provence,
1249–c.1310).21 In the introduction to his monumental Talmud com-
mentary, in the midst of a survey of writers who preceded him, he notes
the many innovations in Maimonides’22 “composition” and then writes:

With the exception of the first sentence (which Twersky skips), I cite the transla-
tion from Twersky, Introduction, p. 32.
Other contemporaries faulted Maimonides for writing the Mishneh Torah out of
“an overbearing spirit.” See the gloss of R. Abraham ben David of Posquières to
the statement quoted above from the introduction to the Mishneh Torah. For a radical
reading of Maimonides’ intentions, see Moshe Halbertal, “What is the Mishneh Torah?
On Codification and Ambivalence,” in Jay Harris (ed.), Maimonides after 800 Years: Essays
on Maimonides and His Influence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007): 81–112.
Two recent studies of Meiri relevant to our discussion are Moshe Halbertal, Bein
Torah le-Hokhmah: R. Menachem Ha-Meiri u-Baxalei ha-Halakhah ha-Maimunixim be-Provanz
( Jerusalem: Magnes, 2000) and Gedaliah Oren, “Meiri al ha-Aher,” Ph.D. Dissertation,
University of Haifa, 2005.
Meiri calls him ha-rav moreh zedek.
256 menachem kellner

“it is almost as if his intention were such that one would not need, in
addition to his books,23 any of the books of the Talmud, or any of the
compositions of the ancients, as the rabbi [i.e. Maimonides] revealed
in the introduction to his books.” Meiri goes on to comment laconi-
cally: “But the sages of the generations24 did not see fit to abandon the
books of the Talmud in any fashion whatsoever, but all agreed to exalt
them to the head of their teaching, taking them as the foundation and
column, and taking all other compositions as branches of them.”25 I do
not detect any criticism here of of Maimonides, only a statement of
the situation. But that statement makes it clear that Meiri understood
Maimonides to want to render recourse to the Talmud unnecessary.
There is a third text from the period which also shows that at least
one other of Maimonides’ readers took him literally in this matter.
This is the upshot of a letter written by an unknown person in the
generation after Maimonides.26
As will become clear in what follows, unlike R. Pinhas ha-Dayyan,
Meiri, the anonymous controversialist, and A.S. Halkin, I am not
convinced that Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah in order to render
the Talmud and allied literature superfluous; but I do think he wished
to reform the traditional Jewish curriculum in radical ways. In this he
certainly failed.
In order to understand what Maimonides is actually doing it will be
useful to look at a statement by a later “Maimonidean,” R. Levi ben
Gershom (Gersonides, 1288–1344). Glossing Ex. 32: 32 (‘Now if You
will forgive their sin, [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the
book which You have written!’), Gersonides wrote:
Behold, the book which God ‘wrote’ is all that exists since it is caused
by Him. [Moses] thus said, “erase me from the book which You have
written!” It is as if he had said “take my soul.” [In so doing] he alle-

Meiri sees the Mishneh Torah as a collection of fourteen discrete volumes.
This expression hakhmei ha-dorot occurs close to 300 times in Jewish literature
according to a database I consulted; two-thirds of those occurrences are in the writings
of Meiri. The term hakhmei ha-dor occurs another 500 times or so. Meiri is responsible
for a large chunk of those occurrences as well.
Shmuel Dykman (ed.), Meiri’s Bet ha-Behirah on Berakhot, 2nd edition ( Jerusalem:
Makhon ha-Talmud ha-Yisraeli ha-Shalem, 1965), p. 25 (Hebrew pagination).
A.S. Halkin published the letter in “A Defence of the Mishneh Torah,” Tarbiz 25
(1956): 412–428 (Hebrew). This article was republished as an appendix to David Z.
Baneth’s edition of Iggerot ha-Rambam ( Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985). As is evident from his
notes, Halkin agrees with the position taken by his author, namely that Maimonides
hoped that study of the Mishneh Torah would replace Talmud study.
maimonides’ disputed legacy 257

gorically compared the cosmos to a book, since, just as a book indicates

the conception which is the cause of its existence, so sensible existence
indicates the lawful character of the intelligible world [cognized by] God,
from which derives the existence of the sensible world.
Using a metaphor which would become very popular in the eighteenth
century, Gersonides describes God as the “author” of the book of the
world. Actually, the metaphor is a bit more complicated than that.
A book can only exist if the author has some plan (“conception” in
Gersonides’ Aristotelian language) which she seeks to execute. Similarly,
the world as we know it exists because God has a conception of the
cosmos having a pattern or structure which Gersonides calls ‘nimus’
(from the Greek ‘nomos’, “law”) and which we would call natural law.
It is not too much of a stretch at all to say that the title of the book
authored by God is Physics.
Gersonides, like Maimonides before him, was no mystic in the sense
of seeking to experience God in some unmediated fashion. “Taste and
see that the Lord is good,” says the Psalmist (34:9). The rationalist can-
not “taste” his or her way to God. God can only be known through
God’s works.27 For Judah Halevi (when in his rationalist mode), that
meant reflecting on the historical experience of the Jewish people; for
Maimonides and Gersonides (who were always in a rationalist mode)
that meant seeking to understand what we would today call the law-
ful character of the world which God created. That, in turn, involves
studying God’s “book,” i.e. studying physics. But God is “author” of two
books—one called cosmos and the other called Torah. For Maimonides
(and Gersonides after him), one who wishes to know God must “read”
God’s entire oeuvre; this can only be done if one combines study of
Torah with study of science.28

I take no stand on questions arising from the “eastern” interpretations of Mai-
monides as a mystical rationalist here. For a recent study see Y. Tzvi Langermann,
“Saving the Soul by Knowing the Soul: A Medieval Yemeni Interpretation of Song
of Songs,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 12 (2003): 147–166.
There was no Hebrew or Arabic term for “science” in the modern sense avail-
able to Maimonides since the modern term names an activity (and world-view) made
possible by the “scientific revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This
point should be borne in mind, even though it does not directly impinge upon the
arguments being made here because modern science no less than medieval science
exposes the wondrous workings of nature and, for religious people, of nature’s God.
I attend to some of the problems raised for our understanding of Maimonides by
the scientific revolution in “Maimonides’ Allegiances to Torah and Science,” Torah U
Madda Journal 7 (1997): 88–104.
258 menachem kellner

That Maimonides holds this position can hardly be doubted.29 The

first commandment in the Torah, according to Maimonides, is to know
that God exists. For a thinker like Maimonides, to know something
means to know it with its four “causes.” But God obviously has no
maker, no final end, no form, and no matter. The only ways open to
us to know God is through what God has caused: Torah and cosmos.
One cannot fulfill even the first commandment of the Torah until one
has learned enough science and philosophy to prove the existence of
Indeed, Maimonides uses this point to explain why the Torah opens
with maxaseh bereshit, the “account of the beginning”:
Do you not see the following fact? God, may His mention be exalted,
wished us to be perfected and the state of our societies to be improved
by His laws regarding actions. Now this can come about only after the
adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension,
may He be exalted, according to our capacity. This, in its turn, cannot
come about except through divine science and this divine science cannot
become actual except after a study of natural science [al-xilm al-tibaxi].
This is so since natural science borders on divine science [al-xilm al-ilahi],
and its study precedes that of divine science in time as has been made
clear to whoever has engaged in speculation on these matters. Hence
God, may He be exalted, caused His book to open with the “Account
of the Beginning,” which, as we have made clear, is natural science. And
because of the greatness and importance of the subject and because our
capacity falls short of apprehending the greatest of subjects as it really
is,—which divine wisdom has deemed necessary to convey to us—we
are told about these profound matters in parables and riddles and very
obscure words.31

After writing this sentence I discovered, to my surprise, that no less a figure than the
late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik actually doubts this. See Pinchas H. Peli’s authorized
rendition of Soloveitchik’s lectures in On Repentance (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 2000),
pp. 130–131. Rabbi Soloveitchik bases his (incorrect) interpretation of Maimonides on
a distinction between “knowledge” and “belief ” when in Maimonides’ own texts the
same Arabic word (itiqad) appears. For discussion of this issue, see Charles Manekin,
“Belief, Certainty, and Divine Attributes in the Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonidean Stud-
ies 1 (1990): 117–141. This is not the only place where R. Soloveitchik, to my mind,
misreads Maimonides. I hope to address this issue in a separate study.
On this, see, most recently, Herbert A. Davidson, “The First Two Positive Com-
mandments . . .” (above, note 3).
I quote here and below from the translation of Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1963); our text is on p. 9.
maimonides’ disputed legacy 259

Other commandments concerning God also depend upon this knowl-

edge: Indeed, Maimonides opens his Mishneh Torah (“Laws of the Foun-
dations of the Torah,” I.1) with the sentence: “The foundation of all
foundations and pillar of all the sciences is to know that there exists a
First Existent.” Maimonides goes on (in I.6) to state that it is a positive
commandment (indeed the first positive commandment according to
the Book of Commandments) to know that God exists.32
Maimonides opens the second chapter of “Foundations of the Torah”
as follows:
This God, honored and revered, it is our duty to love and awe, as it is
said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God and it is further said, Thou shalt
hold the Lord thy God in awe. And what is the way that will lead to love
of Him and awe of Him? When a person contemplates his great and
wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His
wisdom which is incomparable and infinite . . .
There follow four chapters devoted to what Maimonides calls maxaseh
bereshit and maxaseh merakvah, physics and metaphysics. This crash course
in the sciences, “physics for rabbis,” is designed to provide enough
information for the reader to form a basic and preliminary understand-
ing of the wisdom in God’s creation, so that he or she can begin to
approach awe and fear of God.
It thus follows that in order to fulfill the three positive command-
ments which establish the basic parameters for one’s relationship with
God—knowledge, love, awe—one must study the physical sciences. One
cannot, of course begin one’s curriculum with physics. Maimonides
acknowledges this in the letter with which he opens the Guide of the
Perplexed, there suggesting an approved course of study: mathematics,
astronomy, logic, before physics and metaphysics.
Maimonides’ view as adumbrated to this point has clear implications
for what he takes to be the best Jewish curriculum. He turns to this
subject explicitly in his “Laws of Torah Study”:
One should divide the time of his study into three: a third to the Written
Torah, a third to the Oral Torah, and a third [should be devoted to]
reflection, deducing conclusions from premises, drawing implications of

Davidson (above, note 3), p. 130, maintains that in the Book of Commandments Mai-
monides held the first commandment to involve belief, not knowledge. But he agrees
that here in “Foundations” the commandment is to know that God exists.
260 menachem kellner

statements, comparing statements, and applying the hermeneutical rules

by which the Torah is interpreted, until one knows the principles of these
rules, and how to deduce the prohibited, the permitted, and similar things
from what one has learned by tradition. This subject is called “Talmud.”
For example, if one is a craftsman, working at his trade three hours each
day, and devotes nine hours to the study of Torah, three of those nine
hours he should [spend] studying the Written Torah, three the Oral Law,
and three reflecting using his own thought how to deduce one thing from
another. The words of the prophets are included in the Written Torah,
and their interpretation in the Oral Torah, and the subjects entitled pardes
are included within Talmud. When is [this plan] to be followed? At the
beginning of one’s studies. But when his wisdom has grown, and it is
no longer necessary for him to study the Written Torah or to constantly
occupy himself with the Oral Torah, he should read, at fixed times,
the Written Torah and the statements of the tradition in order not to
forget any of the rules of the Law, and he should devote all his days to
Talmud exclusively, according to his breadth of understanding and the
composure of his mind.33
This text is a classic example of Maimonides’ penchant for writing
for several audiences simultaneously.34 The casual reader here will find
nothing out of the ordinary. A closer examination shows this passage
to be nothing short of revolutionary.
A beginning student should divide the time available to study into
three: written Torah, oral Torah, and “reflection, deducing conclu-
sions from premises, drawing implications of statements, comparing
statements, and applying the hermeneutical rules by which the Torah
is interpreted, until one knows the principles of these rules, and how
to deduce the prohibited, the permitted, and similar things from what
one has learned by tradition.” This last subject Maimonides calls
In the next sentence Maimonides specifies what he means by each
of the categories:

“Laws of Torah Study,” I.11–12. For valuable studies of this passage see J. Kafih,
“ ‘Secular’ Studies According to Maimonides,” in Kafih, Ketavim ( Jerusalem: Axaleh be-
Tamar, 2002) vol. 2, pp. 587–596 (Hebrew) and Hannah Kasher, “Talmud Torah as
a Means of Apprehending God in Maimonides’ Teachings,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish
Thought 5 (1986): 71–81 (Hebrew).
On this sort of writing in Maimonides, see David Henschke, “On the Question
of Unity in Maimonides’ Thought,” Daxat 37 (1996): 37–71 (Hebrew) and Menachem
Kellner, “The Literary Character of the Mishneh Torah: On the Art of Writing in
Maimonides’ Halakhic Works,” E. Fleisher, G. Blidstein, C Horowitz, and B. Septimus
(eds.) Mexah Shexarim: Studies in Medieval Jewish Spiritual Life in Memory of Isadore Twersky
( Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001): 29–45.
maimonides’ disputed legacy 261

• Written Torah = “words of the prophets”

• Oral Torah = “interpretation” of the words of the prophets35
• Talmud = pardes

What is pardes? Our text here is from “Laws of Torah Study,” the third
section of Sefer ha-Madda, the “Book of Knowledge.” Earlier in the same
book, at the end of the fourth chapter of “Laws of the Foundations
of the Torah,” Maimonides defines pardes as follows:
The topics connected with these five precepts, treated in the above four
chapters, are what the early sages called pardes, as they said, “four entered
pardes.” And although those four men were great men of Israel and great
sages, they did not all possess the capacity to know and grasp these subjects
clearly. Therefore, I say that it is not proper to dally in pardes till one has
first filled oneself with bread and meat; by which I mean knowledge of
what is permitted and what is forbidden, and similar distinctions in other
classes of precepts. Although these last subjects were called by the Sages
“a small thing,” as when they say “great things, maxaseh merkavah, and a
small thing, the discussions of Abaye and Rava, still they should have
precedence, for the knowledge of these things gives composure to the
mind in the beginning. They are the precious boon bestowed by God, to
promote social well-being on earth, and enable men to obtain bliss in the
life hereafter.36 Moreover, the knowledge of them is within the reach of
all, young and old, men and women;37 those gifted with great intellectual
capacity as well as those whose intelligence is limited.”

For discussions of Maimonides’ use of the expression “oral Torah” see the following
studies of Gerald (Yaxakov) Blidstein: “Maimonides on ‘Oral Law’,” Jewish Law Annual 1
(1978): 108–122 and “Oral Law as Institution in Maimonides,” in The Thought of Moses
Maimonides, edited by Ira Robinson (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1990): 167–182.
I, for one, do not detect here a retreat from Maimonides’ settled doctrine that the
key to life in the world to come is intellectual perfection. Since that question is not at
issue here, I shall not go further into this subject.
This is perhaps the place to note that Maimonides’ attempt to get women accepted
as the ontological (if not social and halakhic) equals of men must also be adjudged a
failure. See the writings of the “Haifa School” on medieval philosophical misogyny:
Menachem Kellner, “Philosophical Misogyny in Medieval Jewish Thought: Gersonides
vs. Maimonides,” in A. Ravitzky (ed.), Y. Sermonetta Memorial Volume ( Jerusalem: Magnes,
1998): 113–28 (Hebrew); Avraham Melamed, “ ‘Maimonides on Women: Formless
Matter or Potential Prophet?’,” Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism . . . Dedicated
to . . . Alexander Altmann, ed. Elliot Wolfson, Alfred Ivry, and Allan Arkush (Amsterdam:
Harwood Academic, 1998): 99–134; Julia Schwartzman, “Gender Concepts of Medieval
Jewish Thinkers and the Book of Proverbs,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 7 (2000): 183–202;
and Julia Schwartzman, “Is She Too Created in the Image of God? Medieval Philo-
sophical Exegesis of the Creation of the Woman According to Genesis 1–3,” Daxat 39
(1997): 69–86 (Hebrew). For an important study by a non-Haifaite, see W.Z. Harvey,
262 menachem kellner

In this notorious passage38 Maimonides tells us that the subject matter

of “Foundations of the Torah,” I–IV is what the ancient Sages (in the
second chapter of the mishnaic tractate Hagigah) called pardes. As I said
above, a perusal of these four chapters show them to be concerned with
metaphysics (chapters 1–2) and physics (chapters 3–4). But one need not
take my word for that. Here is what Maimonides himself says at the
end of chapter two (II.11): “What has been said on this topic in these
two chapters is but a drop in the ocean, compared with what has to be
elucidated on this subject. The exposition of all the principles included
in these two chapters is what is called maxaseh merkavah.” Maimonides
wants to make sure that we understand that he here alludes to the same
maxaseh merkavah concerning which the authors of Hagigah II.1 enjoined
public teaching. He goes on (II.12) and says: “The ancient sages enjoined
us only to discuss these subjects privately, with one individual, and then
only if he be wise and capable of independent reasoning . . .”39
So much for the first two chapters; what of chapters 3 and 4? At
III.10 Maimonides writes: “The matters just discussed are like a drop
in a bucket, and are very deep, but are not as deep as those treated
in the first and second chapters. The exposition of the topics dealt
with in the third and fourth chapters is termed maxaseh bereshit.” Once
again, Maimonides connects this to the Hagigah passage; he goes on
and writes: “our ancient sages enjoined us that these matters are not
to be expounded in public, but should be communicated and taught
to an individual privately.”
We may now begin to draw these matters together. Pardes = maxaseh
bereshit and maxaseh merkavah. Maxaseh bereshit = physics while maxaseh mer-
kavah = metaphysics.40 A beginning student should spend a third of her

“The Obligation of Talmud on Women according to Maimonides,” Tradition 19:2

(Summer, 1981): 122–130.
On this passage Kesef Mishneh comments: “Maimonides wrote what he wished;
would [halevai] that it had not been written.” See also I. Twersky’s reference to the
“crushing literalism” with which Maimonides takes the Talmudic reference to “great”
and “small” things in his Introduction, p. 494.
Maimonides is here quoting from Mishnah Hagigah II.1.
In his commentary to Hagigah II.1 Maimonides writes:
Listen to what has become clear to me according to my understanding on the
basis of which I have studied in the words of the Sages; it is that they call ma{aseh
bereshit the natural science and inquiry into the beginning of creation. By ma{aseh
merkavah they mean the divine science, it being speech on the generality of exis-
tence and on the existence of the Creator, His knowledge, His attributes, that
all created things must necessarily have come from Him, the angels, the soul,
maimonides’ disputed legacy 263

study time on Talmud, which Maimonides has already told us means

pardes, physics and metaphysics. But what of the advanced student?
Recall Maimonides’ words:
But when his wisdom has grown, and it is no longer necessary for him to
study the Written Torah or to constantly occupy himself with the Oral
Torah, he should read, at fixed times, the Written Torah and the state-
ments of the tradition in order not to forget any of the rules of the law,
and he should devote all his days to Talmud exclusively, according to his
breadth of understanding and the composure of his mind.
Such a student should read passages from the Written Torah at fixed
times, should read “statements of the tradition” at fixed times as well,
“so as not to forget any of the rules of the Torah.” But the bulk of the
advanced student’s time should be devoted to Talmud (which includes
pardes = maxaseh bereshit + maxaseh merkavah = physics + metaphysics =
“a great thing”).
Let us recall the sentence which prompted this discussion: “Thus, I
have called this work the [Complete] Restatement of the [Oral] Torah (Mishneh
Torah), for a person reads the Written Torah first and then reads this
work, and knows from it the entire Oral Torah, without needing to
read any other book between them.” The Mishneh Torah was not writ-
ten to replace Talmud study for beginning or intermediate students.
It was written to enable advanced Talmudists to devote their time to
“the science of the Torah in its true sense.”41
One conclusion which cannot be avoided from all this is that talmi-
dei hakhamim, advanced Talmudists, are meant to devote the bulk of
their time to the study of Talmudic logic and of science (at least as
Maimonides understood it), out of which latter their knowledge of God
(through an understanding of the wisdom manifest in God’s works), as
well as their love and awe for God, will be enriched and deepened.

the intellect which links with humans, and existence after death. Because of the
importance of these two sciences, the natural and the divine—and they were justly
considered important—they warned against teaching them as the mathematical
sciences are taught.
For an annotated translation of the entire text, see Menachem Kellner, “Maimonides’
Commentary on Mishnah Hagigah II.1: Translation and Commentary,” in Marc D.
Angel (ed.), From Strength to Strength: Lectures from Shearith Israel (New York: Sepher-
Hermon Press, 1998): 101–111.
Guide of the Perplexed I, introduction, p. 5.
264 menachem kellner

But even beginning students are meant to spend some of their time
on these subjects. This second conclusion should be obvious even if
Maimonides had not stated it explicitly: the study of physics and meta-
physics is necessary in order to know that God exists, and in order to
arrive at true and proper love and awe for God. These three are com-
mandments which must be obeyed by all, “even” women and children,
“young and old, men and women; those gifted with great intellectual
capacity as well as those whose intelligence is limited.” But beyond
that, if we want gifted advanced students to study science at a level
appropriate to them, it makes absolutely no sense for them to put off
beginning those studies till they have mastered Talmud; one need not
be a pedagogical genius to realize that.
We may now finally get to the point of all this. Maimonides wrote
the Mishneh Torah as part of an attempted curricular reform, one which
would have brought into the Talmudic academy the study of science.
Did he succeed in this reform? I do not believe that there is today or
has ever been a single yeshiva or rabbinical seminary in the world
operating on these principles. If I have properly understood his aim,
he clearly and emphatically failed.42

3. Universalism

The curricular reform just discussed grows naturally from Maimonides’

view of Torah as encompassing the physical and metaphysical sciences.
This view in turn is one aspect of his remarkable universalism. Mai-
monides can fairly be said to have maintained that the election of Israel
was not a fact built into the universe or its history from creation, but,
rather, a consequence of the fact that Abraham was the first person
to rediscover God; that the Torah is ultimately addressed to all human

The following, fairly speculative point, may be worth noting here. A good case can
be made to the effect that for Maimonides the Torah of Abraham was philosophical
and universalist while the Torah of Moses added a body of laws and practices to that
philosophical base, and was addressed to a particular nation. It is the point of the
messianic world to expose the philosophical and universalist aspects of the Torah to all
(as I understand Maimonides this does not involve the abrogation of the laws of the
Torah, but, rather, their extension to all humankind). The Mishneh Torah might thus be
seen as part of on attempt on the part of Maimonides to preserve Mosaic Torah while
making curricular space and time for Abrahamic (ultimately messianic) Torah. These
ideas are fleshed out in my “Maimonides’ True Religion—for Jews, or All Humanity?,”
Me’orot [= Edah Journal] 7.1 (2008) (http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/436/10/).
maimonides’ disputed legacy 265

beings and not just to the descendents of the Biblical Patriarchs; that
Jews share no special characteristic (be it a special soul, Halevi’s al-amr
al-ilahi, “das pintele Yid,” or anything else) which is lacking in Gentiles;
that proselytes are the equal of born Jews; that in the messianic era
all human beings will worship the Lord from a stance of full spiritual
equality; and that while the Torah conveys a distinct advantage to its
adherents, Jews as such have no advantage over Gentiles with respect
to prophecy, providence, and immortality.43
Any fair-minded assessment of the state of contemporary Judaism
in general and of contemporary Orthodoxy in particular44 leads to the
conclusion that if I have correctly characterized Maimonides’ thought in
the previous paragraph, then he certainly failed to get his ideas accepted
in later Judaism. I want to illustrate this claim by looking at the way
in which one particular Maimonidean text was read by one leading
Yeshiva head in the USA in the middle of the twentieth century.
Maimonides divided his Mishneh Torah into fourteen books. The
seventh book of the fourteen is itself divided into seven sections (and
is the only book divided into precisely that number of sections). This
seventh section is itself divided (in the printed editions) into thirteen
chapters. The thirteenth of these chapters is itself divided into thirteen
paragraphs (halakhot). Thus, the thirteenth halakhah of the thirteenth
chapter of the seventh section of the seventh book of the Mishneh Torah
marks the precise mid-point of that work.
The number thirteen is, of course, significant in Judaism generally,45
but has special significance for Maimonides. Not only did he promul-
gate thirteen principles of Judaism, but in “Laws of Circumcision,”
III.9, following Talmudic precedent, he emphasizes the fact that the

For arguments in support of this interpretation of Maimonides, see Confrontation.
In my experience, so-called liberal and secularist Jews are no less particularist than
are the Orthodox; indeed, when it comes to the full acceptance of proselytes, Orthodox
Jews in Israel are typically much more open than their secularist counterparts. I often
check the “particularism-level” of audiences to which I speak by telling the following
joke: An Eastern European Jew in the nineteenth century, tired of the discrimination
to which he was subjected, converts to Christianity. The following morning he starts to
put on tefillin. His wife says, “Idiot, what are you doing? Just yesterday you converted!”
The man strikes himself on the head and says “goyyishe kop!” The last expression
means “gentile head”—anyone who laughs at the joke thinks that conversion out of
Judaism makes a Jew dumber. Invariably, almost everyone in the audience laughs.
The Talmudic rabbis deduce thirteen attributes of divine mercy from Ex. 34:
6–7 (RH 17b) and count thirteen principles of halakhic exegesis (Sifra, Introduction).
Thirteen is best-known as the age at which Jewish males reach their majority.
266 menachem kellner

word “covenant” (brit) is found precisely thirteen times in the account

of Abraham’s circumcision (Gen. 17).46
The number seven is significant in many human societies, and not just
in Judaism ( Judah Halevi to the contrary—see Kuzari II.20); according to
Leo Strauss (1899–1973) it is of particular significance to Maimonides.47
I am in general no enthusiast for Straussian numerology, but this case
seems too contrived not to have some significance.
What does Maimonides write in the text numbered 13/13/7/7, the
exact mid-point of the Mishneh Torah? Here is what we find:
Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being,
whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding
to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to
worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him
to do,48 and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish consid-
erations which trouble people—such an individual is as consecrated as
the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord
forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this
world, the same as He had granted to the priests and to the Levites. Thus
indeed did David, peace upon him, say, “O Lord, the portion of mine
inheritance and of my cup, Thou maintainest my lot” (Ps. 16:5).49

Isaac Abravanel discusses various other reasons for Maimonides’ use of precisely
thirteen principles in Rosh Amanah chapter ten.
Strauss, “How to Begin to Study the Guide of the Perplexed,” in the Shlomo Pines
translation of the Guide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. xi–lvi, p. xiii.
Further on the significance of the number seven in Maimonides see Joel Kraemer,
“Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait,” in Kenneth Seeskin, The Cambridge
Companion to Maimonides (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 11–57, pp.
20 and 42.
I wonder if this expression ought to be read as an implied critique of notions
of original sin? Such notions are not only native to Christianity, but also attracted a
number of (post-Maimonidean, Kabbalistic) Jewish figures. As I argued in Maimonides’
Confrontation with Mysticism Maimonides looked for opportunities to battle what I call
“proto-Kabbalah.” Whether or not the text here reflects that tendency demands
separate study. For a recent study on expression of original sin in Jewish exegesis, see
Alan Cooper, “A Medieval Jewish Version of Original Sin: Ephraim of Luntshits on
Leviticus 12,” Harvard Theological Review 97 (2004): 445–460. For some studies on the
notion among Jewish philosophers, see Daniel J. Lasker, “Original Sin and Its Atone-
ment According to Hasdai Crescas,” Daxat 20 (1988): 127–35 (Hebrew) and Devorah
Schechterman, “The Doctrine of Original Sin and Commentaries on Maimonides
in Jewish Philosophy of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,” Daxat 20 (1988):
65–90 (Hebrew).
I cite the translation of Isaac Klein, Book of Agriculture (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1979), p. 403.
maimonides’ disputed legacy 267

I want to focus here on one expression: “every individual human

being.” To whom does that expression refer? Does Maimonides actually
mean precisely what he says here, that it is in the power of any and
every human being, Jew or unconverted gentile, to become as consecrated
as the holy of holies, to achieve a share in the world to come (“to
have a portion and inheritance in the Lord forever and ever”), and to
be worthy of sustenance in this world in the same way in which the
Tribe of Levi was sustained by the ancient Israelites? Or, perhaps,
should he be understood in a more limited fashion? I will argue here
that Maimonides meant precisely what he says, and will then show
how R. Aharon Kotler (c. 1890–1962), the leading figure of post-war
Yeshiva Judaism outside of Israel, read Maimonides. This will serve as
a particularly graphic example of Maimonides’ failure to get his ideas
recognized for what they were, let alone adopted.
The first point to be noted is the messianic context of our passage.
It occurs at the end of “Laws Concerning the Sabbatical Year and
the Jubilee.” Maimonides teaches (“Laws Concerning Kings and Their
Wars,” XI.1) that among the first things the King Messiah is expected
to do is to reinstate the sabbatical year and the jubilee. The univer-
salistic character of Maimonides’ messianism is widely-acknowledged,
even among Jews who are unhappy with it. It is thus fair to read our
text here in the universalistic context of Maimonidean messianism. By
itself, this fact proves nothing, but it does, I think, shift the burden of
proof somewhat onto the shoulders of those who do not want to read
Maimonides as teaching precisely what he says in our text by shifting
the focus of his words from human beings to Jews (or, as we shall see
immediately, to a subset of the Jews).
The expression “each and every individual human being” translates
the Hebrew kol baxei olam. This expression finds its classic use in a debate
between the school of Rabbi Akiva, who maintained that the Torah
was revealed to the Jews alone, and the school of Rabbi Ishmael, who
insisted that the Torah was ultimately meant to reach kol baxei olam,
“each and every individual human being.”50 Here there can be no doubt

This debate was made the subject of a penetrating study by Marc (Menachem)
Hirshman, Torah Lekhol Baxei Olam: Zerem Universali be-Sifrut ha-Tanaxim ve-Yahaso le-Hokhmat
he-Amim (Torah for the Entire World: A Universalist Stream in Tannaitic Literature and
its Relation to Gentile Wisdom) (Tel Aviv; Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Meuhad, 1999). The book’s
main findings were presented in English in Hirshman, “Rabbinic Universalism in the
Second and Third Centuries,” Harvard Theological Review 93 (2000): 101–15.
268 menachem kellner

but that the expression literally means all human beings (as opposed
to Jews, native or converted).51
The expression is best-known to most contemporary Jews (and cer-
tainly to the audience of the passage by Rabbi Kotler that I will discuss
below) from a text which Maimonides himself may or may not have
known, the liturgical poem (piyyut) Unetaneh tokef.52 Tracing its sources
will be instructive for our purposes.
Here is the relevant passage:
We acclaim this day’s pure sanctity, its awesome power. This day, Lord,
Your dominion is deeply felt. Compassion and truth, its foundations, are
perceived. In truth do You judge and prosecute, discern motives and
bear witness, record and seal, count and measure, remembering all that
we have forgotten. You open the Book of Remembrance and it speaks
for itself, for every man has signed it with his deeds. The great shofar is
sounded. A still, small voice is heard. This day even angels are alarmed,
seized with fear and trembling as they declare: “The day of judgment is
here!” For even the hosts of heaven are judged. This day all who walk
the earth [kol baxei olam] pass before You as a flock of sheep. And like a
shepherd who gathers his flock, bringing them under his staff, You bring
everything that lives before You for review. You determine the life and
decree the destiny of every creature.53
It ought to be noted that the author of this poem takes it as a given
that God judges kol baxei olam on Rosh ha-Shanah. If he took himself
literally, then he held that God judges each and every individual human
being; a trivial point, perhaps, but one that I can personally attest
surprises many contemporary Jews, even learned ones.54
The author of our poem clearly had in mind the following text
(M. RH I.2):

A scan of the one hundred ninety one citations of this expression in the Bar-Ilan
Responsa Project database of rabbinic literature shows that in most cases it means
human beings simply, and in many places it is used in explicit contradistinction to
For a useful discussion of what is known about the poem, see David Golinkin’s
discussion at http://www.schechter.edu/pubs/insight48.htm.
I cite the translation of Jules Harlow from the High Holidays Prayer Book (mahzor)
which he published in 1972.
A learned Jew in my synagogue in Haifa, a lawyer and by no means narrow-
minded, tried to prove to me that the expression kol baxei olam cannot refer to non-Jews
because it is found in Unetaneh tokef ! Even after I showed him the poem’s sources (as
discussed here), he had to agree on intellectual grounds that I was correct, but still
could not accept with comfort the notion that God actually judged Gentiles as well
as Jews on the New Year.
maimonides’ disputed legacy 269

At four seasons [divine] judgment is passed on the world: at Passover in

respect of produce; at Pentecost in respect of fruit; at new year all crea-
tures [kol baxei olam]55 pass before God like children of maron,56 as it says,
“he fashions their hearts alike; he considers all their deeds” (Ps. 38:15);
and on Tabernacles judgment is passed in respect of rain.
Let us look at the verse from Psalms cited here in its original context
(verses 10–15):
The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to naught; he frustrates
the schemes of the people. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the
thoughts of his heart to all generations. Happy is the nation whose God
is the Lord; and the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance.
The Lord looks down from heaven; he beholds all the sons of men. From
the place of his habitation he looks upon all the inhabitants of the earth.
He fashions their hearts alike; he considers all their deeds.
These verses teach us that God looks down from heaven and beholds
all the sons of men (benei ha-adam) and upon all the inhabitants of the
earth ( yoshvei ha-aretz); He fashioned all their hearts alike, and considers
all their deeds. It is obvious that the Psalmist was convinced that in that
God created all humans alike, God also judges all human beings. It is
this verse that the authors of the Mishnah chose as their proof-text for
the idea of divine judgment on Rosh ha-Shanah, and it is this verse to
which the author of our poem alludes. The Psalmist, the tannaim in
Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah, and the author of U-netaneh Tokef all agree
that on the New Year God judges kol baxei olam, and mean by that each
and every individual human being.
How does Maimonides himself use the expression in the Mishneh
Torah? I have found variants of it in five other places in the Mishneh
Torah.57 In each place Maimonides unambiguously means “non-Jewish
human beings.” This fact alone conclusively refutes the possibility that
in our text alone Maimonides uses the expression “each and every

The Soncino translator here understood our expression with crushing literalism;
kol baxei olam is taken to mean all of God’s creatures, and not just all human beings,
and certainly not just Jews. This translation probably reflects the Talmud’s explanation
of the phrase “children of maron,” as deriving from the way a shepherd counts his
flock. See the article cited in the following note. Compare further R. David Kimhi
(Radak) to Psalms 145:10.
On this expression, see N. Wieder, “A Controversial Mishnaic and Liturgical
Expression,” Journal of Jewish Studies 18 (1967):1–7.
Actually, my Bar-Ilan “responsa project” database found them; I just pushed the
buttons. In any event, the places are: “Repentance,” III.3 and VI.3, “Tefillin,” X.11,
“Sanhedrin,” XII.3, and “Kings,” VIII.10.
270 menachem kellner

individual human being” to mean “each and every individual Jewish

human being.”
But not according to Rabbi Aharon Kotler. Who are the baxei olam,
the human beings, of whom Maimonides speaks? Here is his answer:
“They are most assuredly (ve-hem hem)58 are the Torah scholars (ha-benei
Torah) of the generation who are exclusively devoted to Torah, ‘since
the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He,
has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakhah alone’ (Ber.
8a). This is in place59 of the Temple service and to tending the needs
of the Temple which had been done by the Levites.”60 As exegesis, this
passage is nothing short of brilliant; as an explanation of Maimonides’
peshat it leaves something to be desired.
Rabbi Kotler accomplishes many ends in these two sentences. First,
he draws the sting out of Maimonides’ universalism (in the unlikely
event that any of his readers would have noticed it). Second, he conveys
the message that according to Maimonides it is only scholars wholly
and exclusively devoted to a life of Torah (as Rabbi Kotler—and
not Maimonides—understood it) who are as consecrated as the holy
of holies and not unconverted gentiles. Third, Rabbi Kotler uses
Maimonides—of all people!—to support two important parts of his
world-view: that Jews ought to devote themselves exclusively to yeshiva
study, and that those who do not or can not owe sustenance to those
who do. It is yeshiva students who occupy the place of the Levites in
today’s world, it is yeshiva students who can aspire to special sanctity
and who are the “portion of the Lord,” and it is yeshiva students who
must, therefore, be supported by all other Jews.
This is stunning; Rabbi Kotler turns Maimonides inside out. The
man who, as we saw in the second part of this paper, wanted advanced
yeshiva students to study science, and the man notorious for his objection
to the practice of paying individuals to study Torah,61 is transformed

I doubt that the emphasis here is accidental or purely stylistic.
The text actually says makom, “place”; I emended it on my own authority to
See Mishnat Rabbi Aharon (Lakewood, NJ: Makhon Mishnat Rabbi Aharon, 1992),
vol. 3, p. 147. Rabbi Kotler repeats the point in vol. 4 (2005), pp. 42 and 82.
For representative texts, see Commentary to M. Avot IV.6 and M. Nedarim IV.3;
compare also “Laws Concerning Torah Study,” I.7; for studies see Daniel H. Frank,
“Teaching for a Fee: Pedagogy and Friendship in Socrates and Maimonides,” in Oliver
Leaman (ed.), Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives (London: Curzon, 1996):
156–163 and Ephraim Kanarfogel, “Compensation for the Study of Torah in Medieval
Rabbinic Thought,” in Ruth Link-Salinger (ed.), Of Scholars, Savants, And Their Texts:
Studies In Philosophy And Religious Thought: Essays In Honor Of Arthur Hyman. (New York:
maimonides’ disputed legacy 271

into a major prop for an institution, the kollel (an institute for the sub-
sidized study of Talmud by married men), which he would have had
to oppose!
There are other levels to Rabbi Kotler’s brilliance evident here. For
Maimonides, the “portion and inheritance” of the consecrated indi-
vidual “shall be in the Lord forever and ever.” But what is, as it were,
the Lord’s portion? Rabbi Kotler cites the Talmud to great advantage:
“since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be
He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakhah alone.”
For Rabbi Kotler’s intended audience the implication is clear. God has
nothing in the world but the four cubits of halakhah; if a person has
a “portion and inheritance” in the Lord, can that portion and inheri-
tance be in any sphere other than the “four cubits of halakhah alone”?
The point can even be made linguistically, adding to its rhetorically
if not intellectually persuasive powers: the individuals whose status is
at question in this discussion are called baxei olam (literally: those who
come into the world); “since the day that the Temple was destroyed,
the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world [olam] but the
four cubits of halakhah alone.” The individuals (baxei olam) who con-
secrate themselves like the holy of holies must be, according to Rabbi
Kotler, connected to the only world (olam) with which the Holy One
blessed be He concerns Himself, the world (olam) of the four cubits of
the halakhah alone.
Rabbi Kotler has done two things to Maimonides here: turned the
referent of our passage from all human beings to some Jews, and found
a way to draft Maimonides’ support for the kind of institution which
he himself created. With respect to the first, I do not mean to imply
that Rabbi Kotler purposefully misrepresented Maimonides. On the
contrary, I have every reason to believe that he was convinced that
he was explicating Maimonides’ true views—and that precisely is the
strongest possible indication that in this matter, as in so many others,
Maimonides’ views were not understood, let alone adopted. The hard-
wired particularism of Halevi, Kabbalah, Maharal and Hasidism has
become so much part of the warp and woof of yeshiva Orthodoxy in
the last century that only a rare product of that world can read what

Peter Lang, 1989): 135–147. The prevalence today of the idea that yeshiva students are
owed a livelihood must be counted as one of Maimonides’ more spectacular failures.
But, unlike the issues taken up in this article, it is widely admitted in traditionalist Jewish
circles that Maimonides sought but failed to reform Jewish practice in this regard.
272 menachem kellner

Maimonides actually wrote, without seeking to force him into the

accepted matrix. Rabbi Kotler was not that rare individual.
With respect to Rabbi Kotler’s use of Maimonides to support
the kollel system, it is not possible that he meant it as an explication of
Maimonides’ “peshat”; rather it is a kind of “drush” or poetic license,
which makes Maimonides accord with long-established norms. Saying
that raises fascinating questions about the nature of Rabbi Kotler’s
hermeneutics: if Maimonides can be “darshened” to say the opposite
of what we all know he said, then what is the point of the exercise?
This is not the place to go into such issues, but they surely bear exami-

4. Concluding Remarks

There are many other ways in which the legacy which Maimonides
sought to leave the Jewish people is far and away not the legacy which
the Jews accepted from him. Among the more blatant we may note
the following. Maimonides sought to dissuade Jews from visiting graves,
condemned the use of mezuzot as talismans, and forbade appeals to
angels. But Jews today flock to his own (alleged) tomb, change their
mezuzot when struck by tragedy, and sing shalom aleichem every Friday
eve.63 Maimonides, as is well-known, sought to exclude piyyutim (liturgi-
cal poems) from the synagogue service, fought against the profession-
alization of the rabbinate, and it is very likely, denied the existence of
demons.64 This is hardly an exhaustive list,65 but it does illustrate how
little Maimonides was able to control his own legacy.

Further on R. Kotler’s use of Maimonides, see my “Each Generation and Its
Maimonides: The Maimonides of Rabbi Aharon Kotler,” in H. Kreisel, U. Ehrlich,
D. Lasker (eds), By the Well: Studies in Jewish Philosophy and Halakhic Thought Presented to
Gerald J. Blidstein (Beersheva: Ben-Gurion University Press, 2008): 463–86 (Hebrew).
For these matters, see “Laws of Mourning,” IV.4; “Laws of the Mezuzah,” V.4;
and the fifth of Thirteen Principles. I discuss the first of these in Maimonides’ Confrontation
with Mysticism and the second in “Philosophical Themes in Maimonides’ Sefer Ahavah,”
in Lenn Evan Goodman, Idit Dobbs-Weinstein and James Grady (eds), Maimonides and
His Heritage (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009): 13–35.
For the first of these, see Seth Kadish, Kavvanah: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer
(Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1997), pp. 398–399; for the second, note 55 above, and
for the last, Marc Shapiro, “Maimonidean Halakhah and Superstition,” Maimonidean
Studies 4 (2000): 61–108.
David Berger’s critique of attempts to turn Maimonides into a supporter of mes-
sianic claims about the late Rabbi M.M. Schneersohn (Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah,
and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference [London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization,
maimonides’ disputed legacy 273

To the rabbinic establishment, Maimonides was too important to

ignore; his views too unconventional (and perhaps dangerous) to be
accepted as he expressed them. The only solution was to make them
less outlandish. This may not be the tribute Maimonides would have
wanted, but it surely a tribute all the same.66


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Naftali Loewenthal

Joined in Paradox?

This paper is an attempt to explore the question of possible influences

of Maimonides on early Habad thought and the unusual focus on him
in the contemporary Habad movement. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994) presented the image
of Maimonides as a paradigm of the ideals of Habad Hasidism. Our
attempt is to define those features of both Maimonides and Habad
which make this juncture possible.
Hasidism in general is understood as a movement embracing both
tradition and spirituality.1 Maimonides is central both to the halakhic
tradition leading from the Talmud to the Code of Law, and also to the
stream of rationalist and philosophical thought in Judaism, which makes
him a paradoxical and sometimes controversial figure.2 Spirituality
and rationalism are generally understood as sharply differing, if not
opposite directions. However, we claim that the centrality of the image
of Maimonides in Habad has aided this movement to define and
communicate its identity and ideals, both at the earlier period of the
movement and in the twentieth century. Habad has its own paradox

* A number of colleagues have been of assistance in this area of research, particu-

larly Drs Ada Rapoport-Albert, Joanna Weinberg, Allan Brill, Rabbis Shmuel Lew,
L.Y. Raskin and Mr M. Negin. The errors remain my own.
This was the finding of Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer in her Hasidism as Mysticism,
Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought, trans. from the Hebrew by Jonathan
Chipman (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ., The Magnes Press: Jerusalem,
1993). Early Hasidism exhibited intense quietistic elements, but was also markedly
conservative and generally remained within the bounds of tradition.
For an extreme formulation of the paradoxical position of Maimonides the thinker
in his contemporary social context see Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chi-
cago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). The division between the philosopher and
the halakhist has fascinated many scholars. See for example Yakov Levinger, HaRambam
kePhilosof ukhePhosek ( Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1990). Attempts to unify these dimensions
are seen in David Hartman, Maimonides: Torah and philosophic quest (Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society of America, 1976) and Herbert A. Davidson, Moses Maimonides, the
man and his works (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
278 naftali loewenthal

of mysticism and rationalism, which became the further paradox of

mysticism and modernity. We suggest that the Habad paradox is in
some way mediated by the image of Maimonides.
Employment of a depiction of Maimonides in order to substanti-
ate and define one’s own position is not a new phenomenon in Jewish
history. Jay Harris has described three different images of Maimonides
in nineteenth-century Jewish historiography: Shmuel David Luzatto
saw him as the controversial halakhist who ‘fixed’ Jewish law against
the otherwise freewheeling Rabbinic pattern; Nachman Krochmal saw
him as the rescuer of rationalism in Jewish culture; Geiger and Graetz
depicted him as one who found ways to accommodate Judaism to con-
temporary life.3 Here we will attempt to add a fourth image in which
the central feature is the ability to bring spirituality down to earth, in
the framework of a halakhic perspective on Judaism. This seems to
encapsulate the image of Maimonides in Habad Hasidism.
The key feature of Habad which leads towards Maimonides in
this way concerns the nature of the Habad spiritual quest. This is its
endeavour to discover spirituality in the world rather than beyond it,
what Habad terms the ‘lower unity’ rather than the ‘higher unity’. The
more obvious mode of any kind of spirituality is the ‘higher unity’, the
step beyond the world, defined in acute terms by Habad teachers in a
manner which has been termed ‘acosmism’, the denial of the reality
of existence. Although this is very striking, and has justly attracted the
attention of scholars,4 an even more intriguing form of Hasidic mysti-
cism is the ‘lower unity’ in which the world remains world and yet is
perceived as Divine. The espousal of this paradoxical form of conscious-
ness has bearing on the Habad endeavour to combine spirituality with
Reason, hasidic mysticism with certain aspects of modernity, traditional
Judaism and philosophy of science. The theme of the ‘lower unity’
also helps us explore some of the ways in which the Habad image of
Maimonides is constructed and has its effect.

See Jay Harris, “The Image of Maimonides in Nineteenth Century Jewish
Historiography”, in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, LIV, 1987,
See Louis Jacobs, Seeker of Unity—the Life and Works of Aaron of Starosselje (London,
1966); Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to G-d, The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad
Hasidism, trans. Jeffrey M. Green, (State University of New York Press: New York,
the image of maimonides in habad hasidism 279

Maimonides and Mysticism

This topic at least tangentially broaches the issue of the relationship

between Maimonides and Jewish mystical thought. Alexander Alt-
mann explored this in an article published in German in 1936 which
subsequently appeared in English,5 and there have been a number of
other studies, including that of Moshe Idel.6 The latter’s comprehen-
sive examination of responses by kabbalists to Maimonides presents
two ideas particularly germane to our discussion. One is the fact that
despite the criticism by many kabbalists of Maimonides’ rationalist
stance (mitigated by the story that he had changed his views towards
the end of his life)7 the ecstatic kabbalist Abraham Abulafia (b. 1240)
saw two different ways of reading the Guide, one a more simple level,
the second a mystical level.8 Following the second path, Abulafia under-
stood the Guide as being a real manual of spiritual teaching, leading to
intense spiritual experience. Idel declares that in terms of the ecstatic
kabbalah “Maimonides’ Guide can be regarded as a principal positive
catalyzer of Jewish mysticism.”9
A second point presented by Idel relevant to our study is the way
the leading exponent of kabbalah for the early modern period, Rabbi
Haim Vital (1542–1620), declared in a passage about the transmigra-
tions of his own soul that he had a special affinity (“shaykhut vekurvah”)
to Maimonides, and that in a previous incarnation he had been Rabbi
Vidal of Toulouse (14th cent.), author of the Maggid Mishneh commen-
tary on the Mishneh Torah.10 Idel suggests that R. Haim Vital felt that he
was spiritually repairing both Vidal’s and Maimonides’ rationalism. Be
that as it may, Idel’s idea that the image of Maimonides functions a) as

Alexander Altmann, “Das Verhältnis Maimunis zur jüdischen Mystik”, Monatsschrift
für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, 80 Jahrgang, Sonderabdruck, Berlin, 1936,
305–330. The English version, “Maimonides’s Attitude towards Jewish Mysticism”,
was published in A. Jospe, ed., Studies in Jewish Thought: an anthology of German Jewish
scholarship (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981) 200–219.
Moshe Idel, “Maimonides and Kabbalah”, in Isadore Twersky, ed., Studies in
Maimonides (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990) 31–81.
Concerning the history of this claim see Gershom Scholem, “Mehoker limekubal
(agadat hamekubalim al haRambam)” Tarbiz 6 (3) (1935) 90–98.
Idel, “Maimonides and Kabbalah”, 54–70.
Ibid., 67. Idel points out the irony that Abulafia reached his mystical interpreta-
tion of the Guide by employment of the technique of repeated recitation of Divine
Names, a form of quest for mystical experience which was ignored or even eventually
attacked by Maimonides (ibid., 69).
Ibid., 52.
280 naftali loewenthal

that of a rationalist driving the kabbalists towards mysticism and b) as

a direct source of mysticism, and finally c) as having a special affinity
with the leading exponent of the Lurianic kabbalah, provides a suitably
ambiguous introduction for investigating the image of Maimonides in
the later Habad school.
A more pragmatic approach to Maimonides’ image as a spiritual
guide is provided by Paul Fenton’s studies of the teachings of Rabbi
Abraham, the son of Maimonides (1186–1237), which, like those of
Gotein before him, show a definite mystical path. Rabbi Abraham saw
himself as following an interpretation of his father’s own teachings, and
it is likely that his interpretation was somewhat closer to their overt
meaning than that of Abulafia.11
A further perspective is provided by David Blumenthal, exploring the
linguistic context of the terminology used by Maimonides in the Guide
when describing relationship with the Divine.12 Examining the Guide
III: 51 he lists Maimonides’ Arabic terms for “worship of G-d”, “love
of G-d”, “turning wholly towards G-d” “being/standing with G-d”,
“total devotion to G-d”, “G-d’s closeness”, “being in G-d’s presence”,
“solitude”, “joy of experiencing G-d”, “passion for G-d”.13 Blumenthal
asks the provenance of these terms. He claims they do not seem to
have come from the “philosophers”—the Kalam, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina
or Al-Ghazali. Then he says:
Some of them occur in normal Arabic usage, and Maimonides may
be giving special connotations to ordinary words by using them in this
special way. On the other hand, the distinctly religious sense of these
terms indicates that they may have been drawn, directly or indirectly,
from some religious milieu. And indeed, these terms do occur in the
Sufi traditions. . . .14

See Paul B. Fenton “Abraham Maimonides (1186–1237) founding a mystical
dynasty”, in Moshe Idel, Mortimer Ostow, eds., Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in
the 13th Century (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998) 127–154; S.D. Gotein “Documents
on Abraham Maimonides and his Pietist Circle”, Tarbiz 33 (1963), 181–197.
David Blumenthal “Maimonides’ Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority
of the Philosophy of Moses”, Studies in Medieval Culture 10 (1977), 51–68 (reprinted in
David R. Blumenthal, ed., Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, vol. 1, Chico, Calif.:
Scholars Press, 1984, 27–52).
Blumenthal, “Intellectualist Mysticism” (1977), 34.
Ibid., p. 35.
the image of maimonides in habad hasidism 281

This approach has been partially and cautiously followed by Steven

Harvey,15 who points out that according to Georges Vajda, Saadia was
the first Jewish thinker to describe an “intellectual love” of the Divine,
followed by Bahya. However, both of these draw back from using the
erotic term {ishq for love of the Divine, while Maimonides himself
does so, something which is suggestive of the mysticism of the Sufis,
and philosophers influenced by them such as Ibn-Sina and Al-Ghazali.
Of course, the Jewish sources, particularly Psalms, which Maimonides
quotes constantly in his more “spiritual” passages, do indeed use intense
erotic language in relation to the Divine, as does the Song of Songs,
which Maimonides understands as a parable for love of G-d.16
What these ideas lead to is the suggestion that Maimonides was pro-
viding some kind of teaching of direct spirituality (not just, as in Idel’s
account of Abulafia, an esoteric interpretation of an overtly rationalist
work). In terms of this we can now consider his image for the Eastern
European Hasidim some six centuries after the writing of the Guide.


Hasidism arose in the Ukraine in the middle of the eighteenth century

and can be seen as a movement of kabbalists who felt that they must
turn to the people to communicate a version (or several versions) of
inspirational thought and teaching. They were countered by the Mit-
naggedim, some of whom—like the Gaon of Vilna—were themselves
kabbalists who believed that mystical thought should be preserved for
a small elite.17 At this period a number of leading rabbinic figures such
as Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697–1776) and the Vilna Gaon himself 18 were
severely critical of Maimonides’ philosophical writings. What was the
attitude of the Hasidim?

Steven Harvey, “The Meaning of Terms Designating Love in Judeo-Arabic
Thought and Some Remarks on the Judeo-Arabic Interpretation of Maimonides”, in
Norman Golb, ed., Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations, Judeo-Arabic Studies, Proceedings of the
Founding Conference of the Society for Judeo-Arabic Studies (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic
Publishers, 1997) 175–196. See also Georges Vajda, L’amour de Dieu dans la théologie juive du
moyen age (Paris: Vrin, 1957), chapter on “Moïse Maïmonide (1135–1204)”, 118–145.
See Mishneh Torah, Hil. Teshuvah, 10:3.
See Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim, Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture
(Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997) 48–9.
See the Vilna Gaon’s comment #13 to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Dexah, 179:10.
282 naftali loewenthal

Following an earlier study by S.A. Horodecky,19 Yakov Dienstag wrote

a survey of references to Maimonides’ philosophical writings in the
works of a number of hasidic leaders.20 He suggests that the Hasidim
were less concerned than the kabbalists before them with the problem
of the paradoxes of Maimonides. Although they generally accepted the
claim of Maimonides’ “conversion” to kabbalism at the end of his life,
this was not the focus of their attention.21 Thus Dienstag presents a
number of instances in which Hasidic leaders and teachers cite ideas
from the Guide, although they might omit the name of the book, instead
referring to “the books of the early scholars”.22 Sometimes the Hasidim
employed the phrase pirkei hanhagat hamitboded (“chapters on the path of
the contemplative”) based on Ephodi, with reference to the concluding
chapters of the Guide.23
An important exception to this rule of a generally benign attitude to
Maimonides the philosopher is the case of Rabbi Nahman of Braslav
(1772–1810). Rabbi Nahman vigorously warned his followers against
the dangers of Jewish philosophical writers of the past, and especially
the Guide, which they should never dip into. He claimed he “could see
on a person’s face” if he had done so.24 Rabbi Nahman also ridiculed
the Guide’s explanations of the Commandments and the sacrifices: “how
can anyone imagine giving such worthless reasons for the sacrifices and
the incense?”25
However, Rabbi Nahman’s contemporary and friend, Rabbi Avraham
of Kalisk (d. 1810), writing a public letter from the Holy Land which
promotes ‘simplicity’—devarim peshutim—rather than seeking exalted

S.A. Horodecky, “HaRambam ba-kabbalah uva-hasidut”, Moznayim vol. 3,
Y.Y. Dienstag, “Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed and the Book of Knowledge
in Hasidic Literature” [Hebrew], The Abraham Weiss Jubilee Volume (New York: 1964)
Ibid., 307. See n. 7 above. Evidence of the attitude of the contemporary Hasidim
is an article by B. Shahar (presumably a pen-name), “Moreh Hanevukhim lehaRam-
bam beTorat haHasidut” in the pan-hasidic publication Olam HaHasidut, no. 14, Tevet
5756, 36–39.
See Dienstag, “Maimonides in Hasidic Literature”, 314.
Ibid., 326, citing Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730–1788) and the later
R. Avraham of Slonim (1802–1884). See the beginning of Ephodi’s commentary to
Guide III 51.
Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz, Hayei Muharan ( Jerusalem, 1962), Part II ‘Shivhei
haRan’, Lehitrahek mehakirot sec. 3, 19b.
Ibid., sec. 5, 19d.
the image of maimonides in habad hasidism 283

heights,26 actually quotes almost verbatim a passage from the Guide,

as noted by Zweifel over a century ago.27 The passage links cleaving
to G-d, devekut, with Divine Providence and is obviously drawn from
the Guide III 51, although its source is stated to be “the books of the
early scholars”.28
Joseph Weiss believed that the Guide III 51 was actually a source of
the Hasidic theme of devekut, mystical cleaving to G-d,29 an idea reiter-
ated by Louis Jacobs.30 Devekut is one of the most important ideas in
early Hasidism, especially in its more advanced form. While a person
might attain a spiritual or ecstatic transport which takes them beyond
ordinary worldly consciousness, the idea of ultimate devekut is that the
most intense spirituality can be experienced in the world, while eating,
working, and talking with people. Thus Maimonides says:
And there may be a human individual who, through his apprehension of
the true realities and his joy in what he has apprehended, achieves a state
in which he talks with people and is occupied with his bodily necessities
while his intellect is wholly turned towards Him, may He be exalted, so
that in his heart he is always in His presence . . . while outwardly he is
with people . . .31
Maimonides presents this as pertaining to Moses and the Patriarchs, and,
following the two meanings of the original pointed out by Shlomo Pines,
either disclaims this rank for himself or disclaims his ability to guide
others to reach it (an ambiguity retained in Ibn Tibbon’s translation).
Weiss describes the efforts of Rabbi Nahman of Kosov, a contemporary

The full text is printed in the collection of letters appended to the HaMosad
leHotza’at Sifrei Musar vaHasidut edition of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Pri
Ha-Aretz ( Jerusalem, 1974), 54–57.
See J.G. Weiss, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism, ed. D. Goldstein, (Oxford:
The Littman Library, Oxford University Press, 1985) 159, and 168 n. 10, citing Eliezer
Zweifel’s Shalom ’al Yisrael (Vilna, 1873) 3:17–18. See also Dienstag, “Maimonides in
Hasidic Literature”, 314–6.
Before he became a hasid Rabbi Avraham had been a disciple of the Vilna Gaon,
and it is unlikely that he was unaware of the provenance of the passage.
J.G. Weiss, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism 39 n. 3, reprint of an article
originally published as J.G. Weiss “A Circle of Pneumatics in Pre-Hasidism”, Journal
of Jewish Studies 8 nos. 3–4, 1957, 199–213.
Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer (London: The Littman Library, Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1972) 72.
Guide III 51, from Shlomo Pines’ translation, The Guide of the Perplexed (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1963) vol. 2, 623.
284 naftali loewenthal

of the Baal Shem Tov, to maintain something like this form of devekut
himself, and also to demand it of others. Toledot Yakov Yosef, the first
Hasidic work to be printed, gives a humorous report of this:
I heard in the name of R. Nahman Kossover that he rebuked people
who do not maintain “I put G-d always before me” (Ps. 16:8) even when
they are occupied with business. And should you say, how is this possible?
Behold, when a person is in the synagogue praying he is able to think of
all kinds of business affairs, so the converse must also be possible.32
These ideas continue in the Hasidic movement, as we see for example
in a text from the Habad school around 1820, which does not refer
to Maimonides, but describes an ideal variety of devekut which can be
maintained during worldly activity. The text states that there are two
forms of devekut. The first can only be maintained during spiritual
activities like contemplation and prayer. The second kind is a more
exalted level and persists whatever one is doing:
. . . even if he is deeply and intensely involved in business nonetheless this
does not separate him in any way from the devekut (cleaving) of his soul
to G-d, not even a hairsbreadth . . . ‘even though he walks here and there
in the realms of nogah [i.e. “unholiness”], [the Divine] Visage remains
with [him]’33

Maimonides and Early Habad

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Tanya (1796), a tract compiled in order to

provide spiritual guidance for the author’s followers, quotes several
times with approval Maimonides’ presentation of the nature of Divine
Knowledge—“He is the one who knows, He is that which is known
and He is Knowledge itself ”34—and also attempts to justify this idea
in terms of kabbalistic thought. Further, R. Shneur Zalman discusses
in similar terms to the Guide I 69 the [false] idea that the world can
exist independently of G-d,35 although the Guide is not cited here by

See J.G. Weiss, “The Beginnings of Hasidism” [Hebrew], Zion 15 (1951), 61,
collected in A. Rubenstein, Studies in Hasidism [Hebrew], ( Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar
Centre, 1978) 137, quoting Toledot Yakov Yosef (Koretz, 1780) 17d.
R. Dov Ber Shneuri, the Mitteler Rebbe (1773–1827), Shaarei Teshuvah ( Jerusalem,
1972) I 9d. See Zohar II 114a.
Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 2:10, see also Hil. Teshuvah 5:5, Shemoneh Perakim ch. 8,
and Guide I 68. See Tanya Part I ch. 2, fol. 6a, ch. 48, fol. 68b; Part II ch. 7, fol. 83a.
Tanya Part II ch. 2, fol. 77a.
the image of maimonides in habad hasidism 285

name. Nor indeed is it mentioned in the whole of Tanya. In Likkutei

Torah,36 the collection of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s discourses edited by
his grandson Rabbi Menahem Mendel the Tzemah Tzedek, there is a
discussion of knowledge of the Divine by means of negative attributes,
citing Maimonides as the source of this concept.37 A note by the editor
Rabbi Menahem Mendel provides a reference to the Guide I chs. 57–60.
As we will see below, Rabbi Menahem Mendel the Tzemah Tzedek
assiduously studied the Guide and wrote discussions of it.38
Rabbi Shneur Zalman lived through a number of controversies, most
notably that with the Mitnaggedim, who ceremoniously burnt his Tanya.
In a letter referring to this incident he compares it with the burning
of Maimonides’ works in North France.39 This is the first tangible step
within Habad of the view of the image of Maimonides as somehow
expressing that of the Habad leaders themselves.
However, a more general issue concerns the Habad system of
contemplation, which gives the movement its name. As described by
R. Shneur Zalman and repeated by subsequent leaders, this entails
three general steps.40 This “classical” Habad form of contemplation is
not just a style or a mode of contemplation, but a process.
The first step is termed Hokhmah, Wisdom, focussing on an “idea”.
This idea may comprise theosophical elements, such as kabbalistic con-
cepts, or it may be some other intellectualist formulation of a theme,
for example, that G-d created the world and continuously maintains
it in existence.

Likkutei Torah was first printed in Zhitomir in 1848. It is the second volume
published by Rabbi Menahem Mendel the Zemah Zedek collecting Rabbi Shneur
Zalman’s discourses, the first being Torah Or (Kopys, 1837). The altered name was to
evade government restrictions on the publication of hasidic works. The second volume
includes many interpolations by R. Menahem Mendel, generally providing sources and
parallels in the teachings of R. Shneur Zalman and elsewhere in Jewish literature. The
editions of Torah Or (Brooklyn: Kehot, 2001, 21st edition) and Likkutei Torah (Brooklyn:
Kehot, 1999, 17th edition) are in square letters and have several useful appendixes.
Likkutei Torah Pekudei, 6d.
See Dienstag, “Maimonides in Hasidic Literature”, 323–5.
See S.B. Levin, Iggrot Kodesh . . . Admur HaZaken etc. (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1980) 89–90.
However, here too he does not mention the Guide, just “the first book of the Yad”.
See Tanya, Part I, ch. 3 fol. 7a–b. See Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer 82–92; Roman A.
Foxbrunner, Habad, the Hasidism of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady (Tuscaloosa and London:
The University of Alabama Press, 1992) 178–194; Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent
to G-d (n. 4 above) 159–165.
286 naftali loewenthal

The second stage is called Binah, Understanding. This signifies a

process of contemplation of the idea, hitbonenut, exploring its ramifica-
tions, and leads to heartfelt emotion of love and fear of the Divine.
The emotional aspect of one’s relationship with G-d, expressed in
inspired prayer and devekut, is ubiquitous in the Hasidic movement.
What is peculiar to Habad is the linking of intellectualist contemplation
to the quest to gain this emotional state.
The third stage, termed Daxat, Knowledge, as in the phrase “and
Adam knew Eve”,41 signifies a constant sense of attachment to the
Divine. Daxat represents a level at which the contemplation is concre-
tised in the inner life of the person. The fulfilment of Daxat is both a
life devoted to Torah study and observance of the Commandments, as
well as a spiritual perspective on life, indeed, a spiritual consciousness.
Hokhmah, Binah, Daxat form the acronym Habad. The Tanya explains
this system, and its second section, Gate of Unity and Faith, pro-
vides material to be used for contemplation, based on the verse from
Deuteronomy 4:39: “you should know today and consider in your heart
that the L-rd is G-d.”
What is the source of this contemplative system? Roman Foxbrunner,
writing on Rabbi Shneur Zalman, sees the central sources for the terms
and concepts as Hovot Halevavot, Sefer Hasidim, Sefer Rokexah, Zohar, Ikkarim,
and the sixteenth century kabbalistic work Reshit Hokhkmah. However,
says Foxbrunner, “The basic framework is clearly Maimonidean”.42
One example which suggests dependence on Maimonides’ approach
to the topic, even though the details differ, can be seen by comparing
a passage from Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Tanya, Part 1, chapter 3, with
a passage in the Book of Knowledge:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman writes in Tanya:
When [one] contemplates and thinks very deeply about the greatness of
G-d how He fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds and all before Him
is considered as nothing,43 there is born and aroused the quality of fear
of [Divine] exaltation in his mind and thought, to fear and be ashamed
before G-d’s infinite greatness, and fear of G-d in his heart. Then again
his heart will be enflamed with love strong as coals of fire, with yearning

Gen. 4:1. See Tanya, Part I ch. 3, fol. 7b.
Roman A. Foxbrunner, Habad, 178. Foxbrunner cites Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodei
HaTorah 2: 1–2, Hil. Teshuvah ch. 10, Guide, I 39, III 28, 44 and especially 51; Sefer
HaMitzvot Positive Commandments 3–5; Mishnah Commentary, Avot I:5.
See Zohar I 11b (quoting Daniel 4:32).
the image of maimonides in habad hasidism 287

and longing and desire, and a soul longing for the greatness of the Ein
Sof . . . as it says . . . “my soul thirsts for G-d” (Ps. 42:3).44
We can compare this with Maimonides:
. . . When a person contemplates His works and His wondrous and great
creations, and sees in them His incomparable and infinite wisdom, at
once he will love, and laud, and praise, and desire a strong desire to
know His great Name. As David said “My soul thirsts for G-d, for the
living G-d.” (Ps. 42:3). And when he thinks about these very things, at
once he retreats backwards, and is afraid, and knows he is a tiny low
dark creature standing with a weak mind before the One who is Perfect
of Knowledge.45
The contemplative process described in this passage in the Tanya focuses
on theosophic knowledge, the kabbalistic theme of the Divine radiance
filling all worlds and transcending all worlds and leads (in this example)
first to feelings of awe and fear and then to yearning love. By contrast
the intellectualist contemplation described by Maimonides focuses on
the wisdom of the Divine in fashioning the universe, and it leads first
to love and then to awe. Despite these differences, the similarities are
It is interesting that both are describing a contemplative process in
which love is transformed to awe, or vice versa. There is another shared
aspect in the systems of contemplation which both are describing. As
mentioned above, the Habad contemplation system describes a series of
stages: Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. The passage from awe
to love described above is a detail in the process of the second stage.
Is there anything comparable in Maimonides? Not just the movement
from love to awe as quoted, but the sense of a general progression of
stages of the contemplation process? In fact such a system is seen in
the Guide III: 51, particularly as elucidated by David Blumenthal.46
The first stage is understood by Blumenthal to be based on knowl-
edge of the ideas presented in the early chapters of Hilkhot Yesodei
HaTorah, which Maimonides calls “Maaseh Merkavah” and “Maaseh
Bereishit”. These constitute knowledge of the Divine, of the ranks
of angels and so on, and knowledge of the nature of the universe.

Tanya I ch. 3, fol. 7b.
Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.
See David R. Blumenthal, “Maimonides’ Philosophical Mysticism” in his Philo-
sophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2006),
288 naftali loewenthal

Maimonides describes the effect of this knowledge in the passage

quoted above from Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah chapter 2, and also in a
later similar passage in chapter 4 (sec. 12).47
In the Guide III: 51, after a passage disparaging those whose thought
of the Divine is “without wisdom” and whose belief is based on what
others have taught them, Maimonides gives instruction concerning the
true path. This involves, first, knowledge of the Divine and His works
through one’s intellect; then a second stage, in which the person gives
himself over to the Divine and comes close to Him, leading to a quest
for spiritual solitude; and third a higher stage, discussed earlier in this
essay, in which the cleaving to the Divine is so strong that it can even
be maintained together with social activity.
Let us consider some passages from this chapter, translating from
its Tibbonite Hebrew, which is the way it would have been known to
the Hasidim.
And it will be when you grasp [ideas about] G-d and His works, to the
extent that your mind can understand, after that48 you should begin to give
yourself over to Him and try to come close to Him, and to hold firmly
to the bond between you and Him, which is the intellect (sekhel).
At this point Maimonides quotes the verse “you should know today and
consider in your heart” (Deut. 4:35), which also opens the second sec-
tion of Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s tract on contemplation entitled
Gate of Unity and Faith. In the Guide this verse leads to explaining that
after the love, which is a direct product of one’s knowledge of the
Divine, comes a more intense “avodah”, the “service in the heart”.
This leads to a constancy of intense love which for most people is
expressed in solitude, keeping away from other people except when
absolutely necessary.
Now Maimonides speaks of the difficulty of constantly maintaining
this state of intense feeling, and elaborates on the opportunity for a
sense of closeness to the Divine provided by prayer, Torah study and

Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 4:12: “When a person contemplates (mitbonen) these ideas
and becomes cognisant of all the creations such as angel, sphere and man . . . and sees
the wisdom of G-d in all that He has created . . . this adds love of G-d, and his soul
will thirst and his flesh will yearn to love G-d, may He be blessed; and he will also feel
awe and fear on account of his lowness and insignificance . . .”.
Blumenthal stresses these words: the first stage is the kind of intellectualist
knowledge described in Hil. Yesodei HaTorah; “after that” is the second which enters
a deeper bond with the Divine.
the image of maimonides in habad hasidism 289

performance of the Commandments. At such times the person’s mind

should be focused totally on the Divine, while at those times that “you
eat or drink or bathe or talk with your wife and your small children,
or while you talk with the common run of people” one’s mind can be
occupied with these “worldly things”—milei dxalma.49 Maimonides then
goes on to suggest that for some rare people it is possible to maintain
a state of conscious devotion to the Divine even when going about the
worldly activities of daily life, the theme of constant devekut which so
fascinated the early hasidim.
This Maimonidean system of contemplation is not identical to that
described in the opening chapters of Tanya, but the two schemes have
strong similarities: both are presented as a series of stages in a process,
and both commence with contemplation on ideas about the Divine.
This leads to emotions of love and awe (or awe and then love), progress-
ing to a sense of spiritual dedication to the Divine expressed through
devoted prayer, Torah study, performance of the Commandments and
ultimately all one’s activity.50 All this underpins Foxbrunner’s statement
that the Habad system of contemplation has a “basic Maimonidean”
It is interesting that a transcript of an early discourse (prior to 1801)
by Rabbi Shneur Zalman refers to Maimonides’ theory of contempla-
tion and comments on how it differs from that which is presented in the
discourse. After describing how the process of contemplation activates
and arouses “the yearning of the [Divine] spark” within the person’s
soul, there is a comment in parenthesis:
And Maimonides of blessed memory had an exalted soul, but he thought
that the intensity of the [emotional] arousal is mainly because of one’s
contemplation and [intellectual] grasp. In truth it is not so, rather the
intellectual ideas [hasagot] are just a cause which bring [the emotion of
the inner spark] from concealment to revelation.51

Pines, vol. 2, 623. Note that R. Shneur Zalman’s Tanya also suggests that when
a person is occupied with business, his mind is expected to be focused on this activity,
to the extent that worrying about his spiritual inadequacies at that moment would