Thursday, February 20, 2020

We are fortunate that many different letters from Maimonides have survived. Here I am going to discuss my two favorites.

Maimonides lived his early life in Spain, but spent the last 38 years of his life in Egypt. (It was in Egypt that he wrote his Mishneh Torah, completing it around 1177.) Around 1185, he was appointed to be one of the Egyptian court physicians by Saladin’s chief administrator, who was in effect the ruling Sultan at the time. (Saladin himself was out of the country and at war at this time.) What was Maimonides’ life like while working as a physician in the Egyptian royal court?

Fortunately, we have a letter that Maimonides wrote in 1199 to Samuel Ibn Tibbon describing his daily life at this position. This was five years before Maimonides’ death in 1204. The background to this letter is as follows.

Maimonides completed his “Guide to the Perplexed” around 1191. But it was composed in Arabic. The Sages of Lunel (in southern France) could not read Arabic and asked that Maimonides translate it into Hebrew, along with some of his other works. But Maimonides did not have time to undertake such a project himself. Instead, he recommended Samuel Ibn Tibbon, then in his 30s, to do the translations. Maimonides chose Samuel out of respect for Samuel’s father Judah (d. 1190). Judah had translated many important works from Arabic and had created the vocabulary and laid the foundations for such translations.

In 1199, Maimonides wrote a long letter to Samuel giving him instructions about doing the translations. As part of this letter, Maimonides responded to Samuel’s request to come from France to Egypt to see Maimonides and ask him questions and discuss the relevant philosophical issues with him. Here is the part of the letter where Maimonides, now age 61, responds to Samuel’s request for a visit:

“Now, God knows that in order to write this to you I have escaped to a secluded spot, where people would not think to find me, sometimes leaning for support against the wall, sometimes lying down on account of my excessive weakness, for I have grown old and feeble.

“With regard to your wish to come here to me, I cannot but say how greatly your visit would delight me…Yet I must advise you not to expose yourself to the perils of the voyage…You would not derive any advantage from your visit. Do not expect to be able to confer with me on any scientific subject, for even one hour either by day or by night, for the following is my daily occupation: I dwell at Misr [=Fostat] and the Sultan resides at Kahira [=Cairo]. These two places are two Sabbath days’ journey distant from each other. My duties to the Sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children, or any of the inmates of his harem are indisposed, I dare not quit Kahira, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace… Hence, as a rule, I repair to Kahira very early in the day, and if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Misr until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. I find the antechamber filled with people, both Jews and gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes—a mixed multitude—who await the time of my return. I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some light refreshment, the only meal I take in the 24 hours. Then I attend to my patients, write prescriptions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours and more into the night. I converse and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls, I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak. In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview with me except on the Sabbath. On this day the whole congregation, or at least the majority of its members, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together until noon, when they depart. Some of them return and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers. In this manner I spend that day… Now, when you have completed for our brethren the translation you have commenced, I beg that you will come to me but not with the hope of deriving any advantage from your visit as regards your studies, for my time is, as I have shown you, excessively occupied.”

Translation (from the Arabic) taken from I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, pp. 7-8. (This letter is also included in the Encyclopaedia Judaica entry for Maimonides, 11:757.)


My other favorite letter of Maimonides is one written to a dayan named Pinchas ben Meshulam. As we all know, Maimonides was much criticized for writing a major work of Halacha, the Mishneh Torah, without giving his sources. Of course, Maimonides was merely trying to make it easy for everyone to know the halacha by gathering all the scattered halachot from the Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Tosefta, etc. into one place. But people nevertheless wanted to identify the passages from which Maimonides derived each of his conclusions. In a letter to Pinchas, Maimonides tells the following interesting story:

“A judge came to me with pages from my book in his hand, from Hilchot Rotzeach. He showed me a section and said, ‘Read this.’ I read it. I then said to him, ‘What is your question?’ He responded, ‘Where do these words come from?’ I said to him, ‘They are found in the relevant section, either from Eilu Hen Ha-Golin or from Sanhedrin….’ He responded, ‘I already looked through all of these and I could not find it.’ I said to him, ‘Perhaps it was in the Jerusalem Talmud?’ He responded, ‘I already searched in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Tosefta and did not find it.’ I said to him, ‘I remember that at a certain place in Gittin these ideas were set forth.’ I pulled out a Gittin and I searched and could not find it. I was really puzzled… Finally, after he left, I remembered! I sent a messenger and brought him back and I showed him the matter explicitly in Yevamot, mentioned as an aside…”

“I am always worried when people come to me and ask, ‘Where were these things said?’ Sometimes I can answer the questioner immediately: ‘In this place.’ Other times I cannot say and I cannot remember the source without searching. I am greatly pained by this. I say to myself: If I am the author and the source escapes me, what about the rest of the people? I regret that I did not do the following, which now, if God lets, I will do, even though it is a lot of work. Every halacha that comes from elsewhere, I will give its source. For example, in the case of Hilchot Shabbat from my chibur, everything that is explicit in Masechet Shabbat or Eruvin, I don’t have to give its source. But a halacha in Hilchot Shabbat that comes from Masechet Avodah Zarah or Pesachim or Zevachim or Kreitot, I will give its source. I will write: Halacha Plonit from chapter Ploni, its source is chapter Ploni from Masechet Plonit. But this will be a new book into itself. I cannot do this in the body of the chibur….”

Sadly, Maimonides never was able to publish such a supplemental work.

(I would like to acknowledge that I learned about this interesting letter from a shiur given by Rabbi Tully Harcsztark. This letter is printed in Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, vol. 2, sec. 28. I only included a limited section of the letter and my translation from the original Hebrew is not a precise one.)

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] He admits that the main reason he puts footnotes in his books and scholarly articles is to remind himself of his sources.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.